Mountain lion tackles the near-impossible: crossing the 101 Freeway

P-55 before he decided to try to expand his range. Photo: NPS

A major issue for a large group of Southern California's mountain lions is that when they develop the urge to roam, it means crossing a bustling freeway and risking almost certain death.

But during a busy weekend in late July, it was reported Monday, a 2-year-old male cougar successfully crossed U.S. Route 101 (the 101 Freeway), leaving the Santa Monica Mountains in favor of new territory to the north, within the Santa Susana Mountains.

Anyone who has driven the crowded 101 Freeway – in Los Angeles or southern Ventura County – knows that this is a big deal simply from an odds standpoint.

According to the National Park Service, it's only the fourth documented crossing of the 101 Freeway since the NPS began studying the Santa Monica Mountain pumas in 2002. (This is versus 17 known puma deaths on paved roads over the same period.)

"The overwhelming pattern we've observed through GPS tracking is lions coming up to the edge of a freeway and turning around," Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, told the Los Angeles Daily News. "So it's really interesting to see another lion get across."

The Santa Monica Mountains span from Los Angeles city limits to Ventura County. The range is hemmed by freeways on all sides but the west, where the Pacific Ocean represents another travel barrier.

Confinement has led to inbreeding and low genetic diversity, and fighting among mountain lions.

But P-55 appears to have beaten the odds. He had previously been spotted via motion-sensor camera in a Newbury Park backyard (Ventura County). At about midnight on On July 30, he crossed the 101 Freeway on the Conejo Grade, near Thousand Oaks. He also crossed Highway 23 and the 118 Freeway, both in Ventura County.

Wrote Zach Behrens, a ranger for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, in a Facebook post sharing the Daily News story:

"Whoa! P-55 is the fourth mountain lion we’ve documented crossing the 101 Freeway in 15 years of study. Great news for this guy, but in general, this underscores the need for better connectivity between the Santa Monica Mountains and natural space to the north."

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