One Mountain Lion’s Death on a California Freeway May Help Save Dozens More

Big cat lovers worldwide are contributing in his honor to a fund for a car-free wildlife highway.
P-32 is seen here at four weeks old, when he was first tagged by researchers. The mountain lion was still being tracked when he was hit and killed by a vehicle on a Southern California highway on Aug. 10. (Photo: Courtesy National Park Service)
Aug 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The death of a mountain lion on a Southern California freeway on Monday has brought into sharp relief the need for safe wildlife crossings between wildlands in and around Los Angeles.

The 21-month-old male cat, known as P-32, gained fans worldwide after he succeeded in traversing not just one or two but four California highways in the spring, seeking territory free of other male lions.

P-32 successfully crossed U.S. Highway 101 and State Routes 23, 118, and 126 between March and May, according to the National Park Service.

But on Monday, P-32 was struck and killed by a vehicle as he tried to cross another major highway, Interstate 5, near Castaic Lake.

The region’s highways “have proven to be a huge barrier to movement” for mountain lions, said Kate Kuykendall, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “In the Santa Monica Mountains, where P-32 was born, we estimate there are no more than 10 to 15 mountain lions total. It’s hemmed in by freeways and the Pacific Ocean,” she said.

Biologists prepared to do a necropsy on P-32 after the mountain lion was struck and killed by a vehicle on a Southern California highway on Aug. 10. (Photo: Courtesy National Park Service)

Wildlife biologists studying the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains reported last August that the cats’ genetic health has suffered because, unable to range away and find different mates, they have interbred with adult offspring.

RELATED: Saving Los Angeles’ Mountain Lions

P-32’s wide range made him “a unique cat” among the heavily urbanized region’s mountain lions, said Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for the Los Padres National Forest. But P-32 was simply following his natural instincts. “His range was typical for what a cat would need in a nonurban environment,” Madsen said.

P-32 managed to survive four freeway crossings as he moved east from the Santa Monica Mountains. (Image: Courtesy National Park Service)

P-32 was too young to have sired any offspring before he died, Kuykendall said. She and her colleagues suspect that he may have been trying to leave the range of a dominant male mountain lion when he tried to cross Interstate 5 on Monday.

“The comments on Facebook—people are just heartbroken,” said Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California director for the National Wildlife Federation, who posted about P-32’s death soon after it was reported. “So perhaps P-32 has raised awareness about the reality: These cats get mangled. This is something we don’t want happening to them.”

The National Wildlife Federation has partnered with the Santa Monica Mountains Fund and other groups and agencies in the region to create a safe wildlife crossing over Highway 101, in an area near Agoura Hills called Liberty Canyon. The crossing will allow more mountain lions to move safely out of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to the much vaster contiguous wildlands to the east in Los Padres National Forest.

Since September, the 101 freeway wildlife-crossing project has raised about $1.07 million for design and environmental impact studies, which are now under way, Pratt-Bergstrom said.

She has taken P-32’s death personally, she said, because his amazing journey was what attracted her to doing wildlife conservation work in Los Angeles.

But his death is becoming a rallying point worldwide for a new influx of donations to the highway crossing, which needs roughly $2.5 million in additional funds for construction.

“I was hesitant to use it to fund-raise, but so many people were already commenting that we need a crossing that I thought it would be a good way to honor his death,” Pratt-Bergstrom said.

“Los Angeles, a city rightly or wrongly known for being an environmental bad guy, is going to become a global leader for wildlife conservation,” she added. “I’ve worked in Yellowstone and Yosemite, and this is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever worked on—and the hardest.”

Correction: Aug. 14, 2015, 8:39 p.m.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the date when Beth Pratt-Bergstrom of the National Wildlife Federation became involved in the project to build a wildlife crossing across Highway 101. She began to work with NWF in California in 2011.

Correction: Aug. 15, 2015, 8:57 a.m.

An earlier version of this article did not use the official government names of the major roadways that P-32 crossed in his quest to expand his range. They were U.S. Highway 101 and State Routes 23, 118, and 126.