As L.A.'s population of urban mountain lions remains on thin ice, state parks officials mourned the loss of a rare Verdugo Mountains male known as P-41.
National Park Service officials announced that the mountain lion was found dead near Shadow Hills Wednesday. The cause was unknown; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was expected to conduct a necropsy. Experts said it's possible the mountain lion died from complications connected to last month's 7,000-acre La Tuna fire.
Researchers believe mountain lions living near brush fires sometimes end up burning their paws on the hot ground, thus losing their ability to hunt, National Park Service public affairs officer Kate Kuykendall said. "We don't know for sure," she said.
P-41 was 10 years old, the upper range of the life span of most big cats in the area known to parks officials, she said. The upper limit is about 12. He is known to have fathered two kittens, which were discovered under a parked car in Burbank in 2011, Kuykendall said. There's also an adult female in the area believed to be the mother. It's possible P-41 fathered a few others discovered in the Verdugo Mountains in recent years, but there's no scientific proof because those cats have not been tracked, she said.
The mountain lion's death won't necessarily accelerate the possible extinction of L.A.'s urban cougars, Kuykendall said, particularly given his age. The problem for the 15 or so mountain lions in the area is that they're trapped by freeways.
A multi-institution study last year concluded that the local population could become extinct within 15 years as a result of "inbreeding depression," which causes an isolated group of animals to lose genetic advantages needed to survive as a result of inbreeding.
“P-41 had already overcome a number of challenges to survive in a relatively small home range with habitat fragmented by roads and development,” Jeff Sikich, biologist for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said in a statement.
"In an area like Los Angeles, where the population is small, roads make the problem of biodiversity significantly worse," said Eric Abelson, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station.
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Federal officials have tracked P-41 since 2015; they were particularly interested in finding out whether he'd try to cross the 210 freeway to get to the vast San Gabriel Mountains. He never did, according to the parks service. He did, however, cross the 2 freeway to get into the San Rafael Hills, they said.
"It's a unique and cool thing we have high-quality habitat in the second largest city in the nation that can still support these apex predators," Kuykendall said.