In this May 2018 photo, mountain lion P-64 uses a tunnel to cross under a freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Courtesy National Park Service)
A mountain lion who made headlines earlier this year for his multiple freeway crossings survived the initial danger of last month’s Woolsey Fire, but was found dead earlier this week, National Park Service officials said.
The remains of P-64 were discovered in a remote area of the Simi Hills that burned in the fire, which scorched 88 percent of park land in the Santa Monica Mountains. NPS biologist Jeff Sikich from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area said the cougar had continued to move in the days after the start of the blaze and eventually “hunkered down” in a drainage area.
When the Woolsey Fire broke out on Nov. 8, P-64 was in the Simi Hills, north of Oak Park. GPS data shows he continued to roam the Simi Hills for the next few days. Sikich and fellow researchers later hiked into the area and used a telemetry device to locate P-64. When they saw he was moving around within the drainage area, they were hopeful he had made a kill and would survive.
The last GPS point sent by P-64’s collar was on Nov. 28, but researchers weren’t overly alarmed since the collars commonly go multiple days without transmitting.
Then on Dec. 3, Sikich hiked in and found the cougar’s remains. All four of his paws were burned, which the biologist suspects happened as he moved through the burn zone.
“He basically had two options,” Sikich explained. “He could have entered an urban area, where there’s a lot of firefighters and noise and people fleeing and a lot of disturbance there, or choose to enter the burnt landscape — and that’s what he did.”
Biologists can’t say for certain how the mountain lion died, according to NPS spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will conduct a necropsy to determine the cause of death.
The 4-year-old puma was nicknamed “The Culvert Cat” by researchers for his exceptional skill in navigating the region’s freeways, which form a often-deadly barrier to the local mountain lions. In the nine months he was studied by NPS biologists, P-64 crossed the 101 and 118 freeways a combined 41 times.
Mountain lion P-64 was nicknamed “The Culvert Cat” for his skill in safely bypassing the region’s freeways — which are often a death sentence for cougars. He crossed the 101 and 118 freeways a total of 41 times in the nine months he was tracked by NPS biologists. (Courtesy National Park Service)
Researchers were surprised to see he used a storm drain under the 101 near Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills to bypass the dangerous roadway.
“It’s very unfortunate that he was seemingly so successful surviving in this fragmented landscape and then died in the aftermath of a devastating wildfire,” said Sikich, who has managed field work for the mountain lion study since it started in 2002.
Biologists believe P-64 is the father of four female kittens born in May 2018, but will need to do DNA tests to confirm.
P-64’s home range included the northern Santa Monica Mountains, the Simi Hills and the southern Santa Susana Mountains. He was first captured and fit with a GPS collar in February 2018, then was recorded crossing the two freeways five times in 14 days.
The cougar’s rare ability also represented a gleam of hope for the Santa Monica Mountains’ threatened mountain lions. Our freeway system has isolated the local population, which has led to inbreeding and could put the pumas on a path to extinction within 50 years.
P-64 was one of 11 mountain lions NPS researchers were tracking in the area of the Woolsey Fire and likely the second to die in the burn zone. Park Service officials announced last week that mountain lion P-74 had vanished without a trace in an area consumed by flames.
The nine surviving pumas in the burn area appear to be moving normally, according to NPS officials.