Discovering the Griffith Park Mountain Lion (P22): Looking Back One Year Later

Background: As many of you know, in July 2011, my team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) began an ambitious camera trap project to answer the following general question: "Is Griffith Park an island?" To answer this question we strategically placed camera traps at possible corridors that might allow wide ranging large mammals (e.g., deer, coyote, etc.) to enter and exit the park in search of mates and adequate food. Cameras were also placed in open space on the edge of the 101 freeway (both sides) to figure out what type of wildlife activity occurred at the edge of the open space adjacent to the freeway. Basically the two sets of cameras allowed us to ask the following two main questions: "Are wildlife approaching the edge of the park near possible corridors, if so, which species? Are species using freeway overpasses and/or tunnels to enter and exit the park, again if so, which species? On February 12, 2012 at 9:15 PM, we collected the ultimate evidence to prove that Griffith Park was not an island, via a mountain lion photo. The discovery of this mountain lion remains one of my proudest moments as a wildlife biologist and as an Angelino who grew up on the edge of Griffith Park. 

Mountain Lions Unlikely Residents of Griffith Park: As an under-studied park, the idea of studying the unknown was extremely exciting and made carrying heavy urban camera trap equipment (aluminum posts, steel post pounders, steel camera trap lock boxes, bolts, etc.) up steep and seemingly endless hills in the dry heat well worth it. Based on previous surveys, we knew there would be a good chance we'd capture a glimpse of a few bobcats and maybe even a gray fox if we were extremely lucky. However, documenting a mountain lion in Griffith Park seemed almost entirely out of the question, as if surveying for a mountain lion in Griffith Park was as ridiculous as hoping to document the chupacabra or bigfoot. Griffith Park is further away from bigger habitat that mountain lions are known to occupy. Unlike mountain lions, smaller and more adaptive coyotes and bobcats were the largest carnivores known to be able to take advantage of smaller patches of habitat in between Griffith Park and larger open spaces further west and north. As a result, the journey was thought to have too many physical barriers (i.e., freeways, roads, etc.) for a mountain lion to reach Griffith Park than a bobcat or coyote from a smaller patch of habitat (e.g., Stone Canyon, golf courses) at the edge of Griffith Park.  More specifically, a mountain lion would need to cross the 405 freeway (8 lane freeway), a matrix of urbanization, and finally the 101 freeway (another 8 lane highway) before reaching Griffith Park.  In fact, the 405 freeway (first obstacle) already claimed the lives of two mountain lions.  Also, unlike smaller and more adaptive urban carnivores (e.g., bobcats and coyotes) that adjust their habits to adapt to urban areas (e.g., den in backyards, hunt for rodents in residential areas), mountain lions are considered near-urban carnivores because their behavior is not different from their more rural counterparts, such as mountain lions in Yellowstone or Yosemite. Instead, mountain lions only pass through residential areas out of necessity or out of desperation to leave the territory of a larger male in search of territory of his/her own or a mate. Otherwise, they stay in the most remote areas of urban parks and specialize on hunting deer. In short, finding a mountain lion in Griffith Park was very unlikely because Griffith Park was thought to be too small and isolated from known mountain lion territories.

The Discovery: On February 29, 2012, my field assistant and I went to check on our 13 camera traps (swap memory cards, check batteries, etc.) as we normally did every 2-3 weeks. I had been pretty disappointed with photos from recent camera checks because we had not captured a bobcat on camera in quite a while. I started looking at photos from the two bobcat hotspots of our study area near Lake Hollywood. I was super anxious to see a bobcat, which resulted in a few nerdy butterflies in my stomach. At first, I was quickly going through coyote and deer pictures and then I came across and passed a picture showing the image of the massive hind-quarters of a mountain lion (displayed below). I froze and then I nervously went back to make sure I didn't hit the delete button. I gasped and stared at it for a while, astonished at the size of the animal's tail, body, and paws. I then kept going through the photos in the memory card trying to see if my mind was playing tricks on me (i.e., spent too much time in the smog and Sun) and it was just a Great Dane that got loose late at night and stood very close to the camera. However, I knew what it was from the beginning and I came to terms with it. Then I thought, "You should probably call somebody. Who should I call? I should call one of my collaborators!" I started frantically looking for my cell phone and I could not find it anywhere!! I then shouted an expletive as I realized that I left my phone in my car. I reached my phone after a quick jog to the car and got in touch with my two collaborators, Erin Boydston (USGS) and Dan Cooper (CEM, Inc.). I could not get a hold of them at first so I left an excited voice message and anxiously awaited a call back. Erin happened to be officemates with National Park Service (NPS) biologists, Seth Riley and Jeff Sikich who study and track mountain lions in the LA area. A few days later, the NPS decided that they wanted to try and trap and track what is now known as the most urban mountain lion to exist.

First P22 photo that I encountered while reviewing photos that I had just retrieved from the field. Although the photo does not show his face, this close-up photo was very "in your face," providing me with a big shock. This photo was taken a few days after the first photo even though it was the first photo I discovered. Notice that he does not have a collar or ear tags in this photo.

First photograph of a mountain lion in Griffith Park. Although this was the first photo taken of him, I actually did not find this photo until quite a while later after I got over the first photo I discovered of him. This is the only camera trap photo that showed his face so that is also why it is the most famous photo of P22. Finally viewing his face for the first time was very memorable. Notice that he does not have a collar or ear tags in this photo.Griffith Park Mountain Lion Captured, Given a Collar and a New Name: Although Griffith Park is the south eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountain range, Griffith Park is not part of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area that is under the jurisdiction of NPS. Griffith Park is managed by the city of Los Angeles making Griffith Park unfamiliar territory for NPS biologists. Jeff Sikich requested the help of Erin and me to help him find a relatively wild and inaccessible section of the park to set out traps. We showed him a pretty wild patch of Department of Water and Power (DWP) property that was off-limits to the public.  Jeff set out traps and monitored each trap with a camera trap that sent him a text message as soon as the remote camera was triggered.  I became less and less optimistic that the mountain lion was going to be captured. As each day passed I felt that there was a small window of time that the mountain lion would be here due to the small size of the park, from a mountain lion's perspective. I volunteered to check them since I lived very close to the traps. The night before Jeff was going to show me where the traps were set I got a call at around 2:30 AM from Laurel telling me that Jeff got a photo of the mountain lion via text message indicating that the trap was sprung! I am a night-owl so I was just about to go to sleep. My wife (then fiancé) and I quickly got dressed and headed over to the DWP site. We all quietly headed into the property with our flash lights and head lamps. There were no trails, the terrain was kind of slippery and steep, and I did not have a lamp which made the hike a little tougher for me. At least that is the reason I tell people and my ego why I awkwardly fell down during the initial hike.  We arrived to a flat area near the location and Jeff went ahead with a couple interns to make sure the lion was actually in the trap and then tranquilized the mountain lion with a blowdart. The rest of us waited around talking softly amongst each other to pass the time. Laurel then spotted a perfect bobcat track and we took a bunch of pictures of it to keep our minds busy. An intern returned to give us an update saying that it was blowdarted and that they were waiting for the drugs to take effect. Jeff then came back to retrieve us and we all headed to the cat to help Jeff take samples and collar it before it was released. The obvious thing on people's mind was that we needed to work quickly before the lion woke up. Almost everybody was given some sort of task such as writing down data/notes, taking the animal's temperature, taking blood samples, saliva samples, tick samples (if any), fecal samples, administer IV fluid, weigh the cat, measure the cat's body, measure the teeth, take pictures, activate collar, and attach collar. I helped with various tasks from helping take blood, helping administer IV fluid, and holding onto the collar screws until Jeff was ready to fasten the collar. The entire experience went by extremely fast but I soaked in every second. The lion was then carried to a location on the edge of thick vegetation before it was given a wake up drug.  We all anxiously waited a safe distance away taking pictures as we watched him slowly wake up. He groggily awoke, stumbled a bit, and then vanished into the dense vegetation without looking back once. I had been to one other mountain lion capture and release and it always struck me how these big and powerful animals couldn't wait to get away from humans fast enough, no matter how dazed they felt.  After that moment, he would forever be known as P22 or Puma 22, representing the 22nd mountain lion the Santa Monica Mountains National Park Service biologists have captured.

Life After Capture as P22: Since he was collared and named P22 we learned that he did indeed come from the Santa Monica Mountains (genetic results) meaning that he must have crossed both the 405 and 101 freeways to get to Griffith Park.  So far, the NPS' GPS collars indicate that he mostly uses natural areas and remains in remote and inaccessible sections of the park during the day. He travels mostly at night and feeds on deer. Even after receiving intense media coverage (all local TV stations, LA Times front page, etc.), a song, music video, documentary, and even multiple twitter accounts, P22's life after capture has not really changed. Except for being captured again by Jeff to replace a faulty collar, he continues to nocturnally roam Griffith Park undisturbed. The media coverage of P22 was briefly intense and has continued sporadically ever since. When P22's story hit the front page of the LA Times, the media interviewed the National Park Service and my team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) with questions of all sorts, which was exciting, rewarding, and a little stressful. As a local biologist that is somewhat connected to this special story, I feel responsible for maintaining a positive image for P22, the ultimate living ambassador for Griffith Park wildlife and urban mountain lions. I use the word living because the only other equally famous urban mountain lion is the mountain lion that was sadly gunned down in a Santa Monica office park just before the P22 story hit the media.

P22's Value to Urban Wildlife Research and Conservation: My goal is to continue to use camera traps to catch glimpses of P22 to check on his health but more importantly capture the moment when the now approximately 4 year old male decides to leave the park in search of a mate and a more spacious territory. P22's situation is unprecedented for mountain lions so every bit of information we can gather while we have the chance is extremely valuable for future urban carnivore management and conservation. Also, as this mountain lion continues to live incident-free near humans in the most urban mountain lion territory known to date, he proves that even the largest and most controversial urban carnivore species can coexist with humans when given enough space and a healthy ecosystem. Our Griffith Park Connectivity Study camera traps continue to monitor wildlife corridors on both sides of the park and we are about to begin phase 2 which will involve intense monitoring of open space on the east side of the park. Meanwhile, myself and other biologists continue to be impressed with how well P22 has been able to adapt to the park and that he has decided to stay for so long. Initially, his arrival to the park was the ultimate sign that Griffith Park was well-connected to the west which was very informative in itself. P22 continues to exhibit natural behavior (e.g., avoiding people) and stay healthy (e.g., finding enough deer) after being in the park for over a year, which is the ultimate evidence that Griffith Park is a healthier ecosystem and critical oasis for wildlife than once thought. Hopefully the P22 story and information revealed from our research will convince people that humans can peacefully coexist with wildlife if they treat LA's remaining urban parks with respect.

 
Griffith Park Connectivity Study (Griffith Park Camera Trap Research): Donate to the Friends of Griffith Park (Att: Griffith Park Connectivity Study) 

National Park Service local Mountain Lion Research: Donate to the Santa Monica Mountains Fund