Even in the highly privatized, fenced and controlled landscape of Southern California today, large carnivores — mountain lions — range wild and mostly free through the hills and peaks of steep and rocky Ventura County. These mountain lions (also known as cougars or puma) eat only meat and prefer deer. The male of the species is about as large as a human, but much stronger, with hugely powerful hind legs. Grown mountain lions can leap — according to wildlife biologists — as much as 16 feet into the air and 40 feet at a bound.

They slink relentlessly through large territories in the local mountain ranges, tracking deer; but the solitary and almost silent “ghost cats,” as they are sometimes called, rarely if ever are seen by the 846,000 residents of the county.

So when a traumatized couple reported an incident involving a mountain lion to the Simi Valley Police Department a few months ago, officers responded in force. On Dec. 18, 2016, on the steep and picturesque Rocky Peak Trail in Simi Valley off Highway 118, a couple reported being attacked by a mountain lion. Dispatch sent an officer on a motorcycle up the fire road, followed by an emergency vehicle, followed by a helicopter.

“The couple indicated that they had been up to the top of the highlands, at which point a young mountain lion ran up and snarled at them,” explained Michael Kuhn, a veteran outdoorsman who ran into the couple on the trail coming back from the encounter and heard their story. Kuhn chairs the Rancho Simi Trail Blazers hiking club and often leads group hikes in the area.

“Then they looked up and saw a large mountain lion on a boulder; also snarling. This, they thought, was not good! They ended up turning and running down the fire road, panicked and thoroughly shaken.”

By the way, running is not what hikers are supposed to do when facing a mountain lion. Better to stand tall and, in the unlikely event of an attack, fight back. But in this case, according to the police report, no physical harm was done, the mountain lions fled, and no follow-up action was taken.

Not that you need to worry much about mountain lion attacks. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife records show no mountain lion attacks on humans in the history of Ventura County, according to department spokesperson Kirsten MacIntyre, and only a handful of verified mountain lion incidents, typically involving attacks on domestic animals such as horses or goats.

The numbers show that mountain lions are infinitely more likely to die of inadvertently eating rats or mice poisoned by rodenticides, or being run over by a vehicle, than they are to attack a human. If this were a fight to the death between the species, the humans would already have won.

“They’re the last large carnivore in the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Dr. Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “The population of bears and the wolves are gone. But it’s important to say that they do not see humans as prey. If they did, there would be no mountain lions left in Southern California.”

In December, a week or two before the incident on the Rocky Peak Trail, a mountain lion — P39, a 5-year-old mother with three cubs — was killed attempting to cross Highway 118 not far from the highway exit near the trail. Her carcass was never found, but biologist Jeff Sikich recovered her radio collar from near the center divider of the eight-lane freeway. She was the 13th mountain lion to be killed crossing roads since park service biologists began tracking the cats with radio collars in 2002. Since the park service has only tracked a total of 58 lions in the region since 2002, that’s almost a quarter of the known mountain lions in Southern California killed by vehicles.

“Navigating our complex road network is a major challenge for mountain lions in this region,” Sikich said in a statement to the press. “Unfortunately it’s unlikely that the kittens have developed the hunting skills to survive without their mom.”

The kittens — caught adorably on camera by park service biologists when they were smaller than house cats — were about 6 months old when orphaned. Two of them were later killed attempting to cross the same freeway in the same area near Chatsworth, the first in January the second in February. No one knew the fate of the third lost kitten — P50.

SURVIVING THE 405 AND THE HOLLYWOOD FREEWAY

P38 range is throughout the Santa Susana mountain range, all the way from Santa Clarita to the east along the mountains above Hwy. 126 in Ventura to the west.

Because the habitat on which mountain lions depend in Southern California has been crisscrossed by major freeways that flow without cease, mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains face an increased risk of extinction, according to a study published in August last year by a team of experienced researchers, including Sikich and Riley of the National Park Service. It’s not just the vehicles; it’s also the isolation that prevents mountain lions from mating outside their family clan, with the genetic consequences of “inbreeding depression.” 

“Mountain lion populations isolated by habitat fragmentation and major freeways in the greater Los Angeles area have the lowest levels of genetic diversity documented from this species aside from Florida panthers,” wrote the team of researchers.

They brought up the Florida panther because it was declared an endangered species in 1967, and its population fell to as few as 20 animals in later years. Although the Florida population has rebounded since that low, and although the mountain lions of Southern California have, to date, maintained small but stable populations despite the freeway barriers running through their territories, researchers fear that inbreeding — in which the few surviving male lions mate incestuously with their grown children — could lead to genetic weakness and what researchers call an “extinction vortex.”

The solution?

“Mountain lions readily use highway crossing structures,” they write. Park Service biologist Seth Riley points out that a large equestrian tunnel in the Corriganville Park area of Simi Valley under Hwy. 118 has been frequented by mountain lions, and could have been used by P39, had she known of its existence.

“There’s a nice big equestrian tunnel that lets wildlife go back and forth in Corriganville Park [under Hwy. 118] on a regular basis,” Riley said. “P39 made seven round trips between the Simi Hills and the Santa Susanas early in our study. Recently there’s been more evidence of a continuous [mountain lion] presence in the Simi Hills and up at the Santa Susana Field Lab, the former Rocketdyne property. It’s fenced off, which is great for wildlife.”

Mountain lion cubs stay with their mothers for as long as 18 months, but young males soon after must disperse to find their own territories — or face the territorial wrath of an adult male, quite possibly their father. These territories are very large: over 100 miles square. One mountain lion, P38, ranges throughout the Santa Susana mountain range, all the way from Santa Clarita to the east along the mountains above Hwy. 126 in Ventura to the west, according to Riley.

For the young mountain lion, it can come down to a choice between risking a freeway crossing or risking an attack from an older, more experienced mountain lion. Especially for males.

“Even though mountain lions are solitary as adults, the females can tolerate each other’s presence a little more readily. The male offspring will be excluded from the natal [birth] range and tend to try to wander off and find their home range,” explained Rebecca Barboza, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

These wanderings in search of a home range can be extensive: P32, a mountain lion born in the western Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, as a young lion not yet 2 years old, spent four months and walked well over a hundred miles, crossing four freeways, including the 101, in 2015, looking for a home range. The dispersal path tracked by researchers shows him passing through Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Santa Clarita before heading north across Hwy. 126 and into Los Padres National Forest. Researchers suspected that he was tracked by one mountain lion, P38, in the Santa Susana range, and may have encountered another, perhaps the very large P16, in the Los Padres, before he was killed attempting to cross Hwy. 5 near Castaic Lake.

“Mountain lions are a clear example of a species that needs a huge amount of space,” Riley stressed.

Perhaps the most daring and certainly the most photographed of all mountain lions is the Hollywood legend called P22. No one knows how he did it, but — possibly aided by construction slowdowns — he somehow made his way across two of the busiest freeways in the country, the 405 and the Hollywood Freeway, and landed in Griffith Park in the heart of L.A. When a motion-detector-activated camera caught a picture of P22 in Griffith Park in 2012 he made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Subsequently he went on to appear on the cover of National Geographic, crouching in the night with the Hollywood sign behind him on the hill, becoming a bona fide star in Los Angeles. Even after he was caught on tape killing a koala in the Los Angeles Zoo, Angelenos wrote letters to the paper, defending his right to be a wild predatory lion. 

Beth Pratt-Bergstrom of the National Wildlife Federation, who helps lead the campaign for a wildlife crossing across the 101 in Agoura Hills, in a phone interview laughingly said that the planned Liberty Canyon crossing is “all P22’s fault.”

Although scientists, wildlife advocates and Caltrans officials have long been concerned about wildlife and interested in designated wildlife freeway crossings, it wasn’t until P22’s epic journey across freeways and into the heart of Hollywood caught the imagination of the public that momentum began to build for the construction of a wildlife crossing spanning 101. 

“P22 is the poster child for what’s possible for wildlife,” Pratt argues in a recent documentary called The Cat That Changed America, which will be screened in Ojai this Saturday, July 29, at Matilija Junior High School auditorium. (See details at the end of this story.) “Who can’t relate to being dateless on a Friday night and stuck in traffic in Los Angeles? P22 is the poster child for why connectivity is needed.”

AN EXAMPLE FOR THE WORLD

Pratt-Bergstrom and the National Wildlife Federation began to advocate in 2012 for a crossing to be built across the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon. County Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2, from the nearby Thousand Oaks area, was an early supporter, and Caltrans backed the concept.  Pratt-Bergstrom began to put together a plan.

“I met with [biologist] Jeff Sikich and asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “At the time there was a collaboration building between agencies, but not a crossing itself, and that was what was really needed. And funding. That was the missing piece.”

With $100,000 in seed funding from private donors to the National Wildlife Federation, and a $1 million grant from the State Coastal Conservancy to finance an environmental impact report, the massive project — expected to cross the freeway at the Agoura Road exit of Hwy. 101 — has begun to take shape. The bridge across the freeway will be 165 feet wide and 200 feet long, with noise barriers to reduce traffic noise and block light, and native drought-tolerant plantings to encourage wildlife. The Liberty Canyon crossing — where a mountain lion was killed trying to cross the freeway in 2013 — will offer mountain lions, deer and countless other wildlife a chance to pass safely from the Santa Monica Mountains on the west into the Simi Valley Hills to the north.

Pratt-Bergstrom said that the Save L.A. Cougars project is on course to raise a total of $10 million this year and $55 million overall, and expects to see the crossing completed by 2022. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors first voted to back the project in 2014. Parks points out that it’s a uniquely nonpartisan effort.

“Both Republicans and Democrats feel strongly about the importance of open space and habitat protection in our area,” she said. “Protecting the habitat can be expensive, but the support is there. I sit also on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which has funds designated for wildlife conservation. We pledged $250,000 to get the design project started.”

Since then, momentum has built. In 2016, the state Wildlife Conservation Board pledged $3.35 million toward the purchase of a 71-acre parcel called Chesebro Meadows near Liberty Canyon, just north of the freeway. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy added $2.55 million and Los Angeles County, $1.1 million toward the purchase of the property, according to the Wildlife Conservation Board.

A note of pride comes into Pratt-Bergstrom’s voice as she describes the wildlife crossing to be built at Liberty Canyon. 

“You will be able to hike from Simi Valley to Malibu without crossing pavement,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “If you include the access roads, this crossing will go over 10 lanes of traffic. It will be aesthetically beautiful, a natural extension of the landscape that blends seamlessly into a land bridge over the freeway.”

She adds that this will be the biggest wildlife crossing in the United States and probably the world.

“The world is watching this one,” she said. “It’s likely this will be the largest wildlife crossing ever built, and probably the only one in an urban setting. If we can do this in Los Angeles, one of the most densely populated regions in the country, we can do this anywhere.”

Back at Hwy. 118 in Ventura County, Caltrans is working with wildlife scientists on plans to fence off the freeway around the Rocky Peak Trail area. They want to keep mountain lions from attempting to cross the eight-lane freeway and to shunt them either toward the underground crossing in Corriganville Park, or to a two-lane road crossing above the freeway at Kuehner Drive.

“Caltrans is aware of the need to protect the biological diversity of the region and is looking at wildlife fencing in cooperation with other agencies,” said Michael Comeaux, a spokesman for the agency. Comeaux added that Caltrans already knows of the high number of mountain lions killed trying to cross Hwy. 118 near Santa Susana Pass, and hopes to reduce the number.

THE RETURN OF THE LOST CAT

Not far away, in Chatsworth, on May 5 of this year, the orphaned young cat P-50 was found behind a garden center.

“P-50 wasn’t posing a threat to people and was actually doing the nursery a bit of a favor by living off of small animals on its back lot, but he was in an urban area and wouldn’t be able to make it safely back to his habitat,” said Rebecca Barboza, an environmental scientist who oversaw the operation for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We tranquilized it and while we were examining it we noticed an ear tag from the National Park Service. Sure enough, it was P-50. He was completely healthy.”

P-50 was released in the Santa Susana Mountains. Barboza agrees with Pratt-Bergstrom that Southern Californians tend to be aware of the stresses that habitat loss and fragmentation put on wildlife and thinks people are eager to support measures to help them survive.

“Certainly we were surprised to find out that this cat was in fact P50,” she said. “I think it’s very fortuitous, and I think it speaks to the survivability of a species like the mountain lion.”

For Supervisor Linda Parks, the wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon has the potential to become a new symbol of Ventura County.

“I really like the message that this will send, to have this green overpass built that will be visible to people coming into Ventura County,” she said. “The idea is already popular; the resolution won unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors and was also approved by the Southern California Association of Governments. I think the crossing could become a tourist attraction, and I think it shows people the value we place on wildlife in our community.”

Pratt-Bergstrom thinks the message will be heard around the world.

“Los Angeles has long been tagged as an environmental bad guy,” she said. “But this will set a really good example, showing that wildlife can live in cities, even animals as big as mountain lions.”

An hour-long documentary film about the legendary P22, The Cat That Changed America, will be screened in Ojai at the Matilija Junior High Auditorium, on Saturday, July 29, beginning at 4:30 p.m. A panel discussion, featuring Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, focusing on wildlife and the hazards of rodenticides, will follow, moderated by Ed Begley Jr. Suggested donation only. The auditorium is located at 703 El Paseo Road, Ojai. Call 310-600-5356 for more information.