Colorado Bell mountains at sunrise.
 
Video

DNA Highlights Fragile Mountain Lion Population

11/06/13 A 3-and-a-half-minute video by NBC Los Angeles

The National Park Service says a mountain lion killed on the freeway in Agoura Hills could have brought invaluable new genetic material to an isolated population in the Santa Monica Mountains. Lucy Noland reports for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.




Southern California's mountain lions are in trouble. And biologists worry that spells trouble with a capital "T" for not only our wildlands but our entire ecosystem, right down to songbirds.

Our massive freeways and ever expanding communities have penned in the state's last top predator and with no room and no way to roam, they're inbreeding in the Santa Monica, Santa Ana and Santa Cruz Mountain Ranges. "Survival is now the question" says biologist Winston Vickers of University of California Davis.

Vickers has been studying the big cats since 2000 and is pushing for wildlife corridors to help the animals cross over or under freeways. So is the National Park Service who let me tag along as biologist Jeff Sikich went in search of the animals. Since 2002, the Park Service has tracked dozens of radio-collared mountain lions and what 50,000 GPS hits show them is how frightening, how daunting our freeway system is to the animals.

"The freeways are a huge barrier for movement. In the past 10 years, we've only documented one radio-collared mountain lion successfully crossing the freeway right in the vicinity of Liberty Canyon," says Sikich.

That Liberty Canyon area off the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills is key, "It's one of the last remaining spots along the 101 where we have natural protected habitats on both sides of the freeways," says Sikich.

The cost to build a tunnel under the 101 is $10million and biologists like Amy Rodrigues from the Mountain Lion Foundation says it's well worth the cost "If we lose the mountain lion, which is at the top of the food chain, we're going to see negative effects, all the way down to the loss of native plants and songbirds. The whole ecosystem will restructure and it's usually less able to recover from natural disasters and other changes."

Biologists say not only would the deer population explode, their very nature changes without a top predator. Big cats keep deer on the move, so entire forests can regenerate.

Holding the purse strings to getting these corridors built is the California State Transportation Agency. But it's not even state money we're talking about, it's federal transportation funds that state officials dictate either go here or there. The National Park Service has tried before to secure the grant money, but the state wouldn't go for it. So the Park Service is trying again.

What happens next rests with state officials either saying "yes" or "no" to funding safe-passage for wildlife across the jam-packed freeways we built.

Oh and if you're anything like I was before I delved into this story, you might be pretty wary of mountain lions. Here's the skinny from all the biologists I talked with: unless you're a deer, you have very little to worry about- the cats are most assuredly more scared of our neighborhoods than we are of them accidentally wandering in.

It's usually young males, just kicked out by mom that end up on the fringes of neighborhoods that border our wildlands. Of course, we always go nuts when a cougar has the misfortune of trying to find his own home range and lands near our homes.

Helicopters buzz above. Reporters breathlessly ask residents "What did you see?!" Fish and Wildlife descends onto the scene.

You want to know what would happen if we all just left the scared animal alone in that tree or hiding under that porch?

I asked.

And biologists tell me, the mountain lion would head back into the wilderness under the cover of darkness and never, ever return to that scary, awful place.

Alright, you ready to go for a hike with me in search of the big cats? Here's my report.