Tracking a young lion’s fatal path

“A radio collared mountain lion (named M56 by researchers) living in one of the small patches of mountain lion habitat left in southern California was recently killed by the US Department of Agriculture. M56 was part of a study that looked at how mountain lions navigate around our urban areas and how far they’ll disperse in search of habitat. M56 was the first lion in the study to successfully cross Interstate 15 – the ten lanes of heavy traffic that run from San Diego up through eastern Los Angeles County then over to Las Vegas – and he was heading away from populated areas.

Unfortunately, after all his efforts, M56 was killed for going after someone’s hobby sheep left unprotected overnight. No matter how careless a livestock owner is, if a lion preys on a domestic animal, the pet or livestock owner can legally have the lion killed at the tax-payers’ expense. This, along with roadkill deaths, has killed off about half of the radio collared lions in the study. While many are outraged that someone had M56 shot, habitat loss continues to kill a large but unrecorded number of mountain lions in the state”….Mountain Lion Foundation

He was known to scientists as “M56,” and by the end of his short life he’d had plenty of contact with humans.

A radio collar allowed scientists to trace the young cougar’s path as he threaded his way through human development and across busy highways before dying at human hands. It was part of a long-running study of the big cats to learn how they navigate heavy human presence in their habitat, and how to design wildlife corridors to help them survive.

The animal’s life and death illustrate the hazards that the lions of the Santa Ana Mountains face as, one by one, their corridors to other expanses of wild land are severed, their habitat gradually hemmed in by civilization.

“He’s a tragic figure,” said Winston Vickers, a researcher with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and part of the Southern California Cougar-Bobcat Study who captured M56, fitted him with a collar and mapped his movements. “He worked so hard to get out of town, then he got killed.”

The lion was first captured as a kitten two years ago in Orange County’s Caspers Wilderness Park, and seemed to have an adventurous streak.

This past March, when he was old enough to leave his mother and strike out on his own, he headed south as scientists tracked his movements. By then he’d been recaptured twice, the second time fitted with a radio collar.

He crossed Interstate 15 — the first of 17 mountain lions collared in the Santa Ana Mountains over four years to do it. He crossed busy highways many more times, prowled the edges of urban development and Camp Pendleton and hit the beach at least twice in San Diego County.

“He went almost to the Mexican border,” Vickers said.

The end came in April when he tried to attack “hobby sheep” near Japatul in San Diego County, and was shot under a permit issued to the property owner. The property owner requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture kill the animal, and the killing was perfectly legal.

Still, Vickers said the problem could have been avoided if the sheep had been brought in at night, instead of being left outside.

“That is regarded as best practices with livestock ownership in mountain lion country,” Vickers said. “Otherwise, you’re just taking a risk with the livestock.”

Of the 53 mountain lions radio-collared in Orange and San Diego counties as part of the study since 2001, nearly half have been found dead. Some are shot, but many are killed on roadways.

Vickers learned of another of his collared mountain lion killed on the road Friday — this one struck on the 241 toll road in Orange County that had been lying unseen on the roadside for as long as two weeks.

The long-running cougar and bobcat project, among other things, helps biologists and government agencies find good sites for wildlife crossings to cut down on roadkill of the felines.

Exactly how stable the population of cougars in the Santa Ana Mountains remains is unknown, he said; his research appears to confirm previous findings of roughly 15-20 adult lions at any given time in the Santa Ana range.

“All we can say for sure is that there is a steady loss of habitat,” Vickers said. “All of the things being considered, that means there is going to be less room. The numbers are going to decline. In general, that is what you see with habitat loss.”

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