Mountain Lion Makes Rare, Successful Crossing of 101 Freeway

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A mountain lion known as P-33 is pictured in a photo posted to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Facebook page on March 4, 2015.

A mountain lion part of an isolated group in the Santa Monica Mountains has successfully crossed the 101 Freeway, a rare feat only known to have happened once prior.

The 16-month-old female mountain lion, known as P-33, was caught on a tracking device making her way across the eight-lane freeway in the Camarillo area, at the farthest western end of the mountains, the National Park Service stated in a news release Friday.

Her exact path was unclear, but she’s believed to have crossed the Conejo Grade area, heading north, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. on Monday, March 9.

“It’s remarkable that this lion made it across the 101 alive,” said Linda Parks, Ventura County supervisor and chair of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The only other mountain lion known to have successfully crossed the roadway was known as P-12, which made the journey in 2009.

“The GPS points show that the lions we’re tracking frequently come right up to the edges of the freeway and then turn around,” said Dr. Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “After more than 10 years of seeing the same pattern in our data, it is very cool to see a lion figure out how to cross the freeway and reach other natural areas to the north.”

P-33, who received media attention in early March due to a series of photographs capturing her and her family in the wild, was also the only mountain lion of more than 35 studied to have dispersed out of the Santa Monica Mountains, the news release stated.

It is critical that mountain lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains have connections to populations in the north, including the Santa Susana Mountains, for long-term genetic health reasons, according to the National Park Service.

Genetic differences north and south of the 101 Freeway have been found, as well as multiple cases of “first-order breeding,” the park service stated.

“We are fortunate to have vast areas of undeveloped open space for these animals to roam, but we need safe crossing locations for them to keep motorists and animals safe from collisions,” Parks said.

In 2009, P-12 successfully traveled south on the freeway in Agoura Hills’ more commonly crossed Liberty Canyon area.

“The Liberty Canyon area remains the most ideal location for a proposed wildlife crossing across the 101 Freeway because the habitat connection to the north is the strongest,” the news release stated.

The need for a crossing was highlighted in 2013 when another mountain lion was fatally struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross the roadway,  a National Park Service news release stated that November.

That puma was on the verge of bringing new genetic material to the isolated population of mountain lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains, according to the park service.

“The fact that this young male chose to cross – unsuccessfully – at Liberty Canyon shows how critical this wildlife corridor is for maintaining genetic diversity in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Riley said at the time.

While there is an existing underpass for wildlife north of Liberty Canyon, under the 118 Freeway, advocates have pushed for a tunnel crossing where the lion was struck and killed in 2013.

Funding for the $10-million project came up short twice, the park service reported in 2013.

But in January, the State Coastal Conservancy awarded Caltrans $1 million to conduct an environment assessment and begin the initial design for development, according to the park service.

Another mountain lion – P-22, who became sick last year after becoming exposed to rat poison – was believed to have crossed the 101 and 405 Freeways, but was not wearing a tracking device at the time.

“His dispersal is not considered successful by biologists because he remains hemmed in by multiple freeways on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains and has no opportunities for reproduction,” the park service stated.

The National Park Service has been studying mountain lions living in and around the Santa Monica Mountains since 2002 “to determine how they survive in an increasingly fragmented and urbanized environment,” the organization stated in a news release.