LOS ANGELES, CA — Like a crossover episode of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Wild Kingdom,” grainy new security video footage shows a young mountain lion being stalked through the streets of Bel Air by another lion in the hours before it died trying to cross the San Diego (405) Freeway.
A series of videos released Tuesday by the National Park Service demonstrate why a young male mountain lion was willing to risk crossing back over the 405 just weeks after becoming the first collared lion to ever successfully cross the world’s busiest freeway. Known as P-61, the lion had wandered into a relatively small Santa Monica Mountain territory dominated by a larger lion. Even as wildlife experts celebrated P-61’s first successful crossing, they knew he’d have trouble in his new home in the hills above Los Angeles.
P-61 was killed around 4 a.m. Sept. 7 while trying to cross the freeway again between Bel Air Crest Road and the Sepulveda Boulevard underpass. The grainy videos released by the NPS show the hour preceding his death. It captures a life-and-death struggle between two lions in the unlikely setting of the sleepy streets of Bel Air.
The first video shows P-61, a four-year-old male lion, race up a tree in a residential neighborhood. There P-61 remains hidden while his pursuer wanders past. The larger, older lion paces the area, crossing the street before returning back to the tree. The older lion then scrambles up the tree in pursuit, and P-61 makes a run for it. A short distance later, P-61 passes by another camera, crossing a major street near the freeway. He disappears into the bushes before the older lion appears on screen. The older lion clearly tracks P-61, overshooting his trail and then doubling back to find it again.
Minutes later, P-61 was struck while crossing the 405 Freeway. NPS officials say the lion managed to cross five lanes of traffic, but was struck on the southbound side of the roadway.
“This is really interesting because our researchers are rarely able to see this kind of interaction between these secretive and nocturnal animals. They are getting some real interesting insight into how these animals interact,” said Ana Cholo, a National Parks Service spokeswoman.
“It’s called intraspecific conflict, which is when these animals can fight each other. In this case, it appears that the more dominant lion is the uncollared lion, and he was protecting his territory, which is east of the 405,” she said. “Here, it’s more complicated because of the roads and the freeways and the isolation that comes with it. These are things you see in the wild, but here in LA played out differently with backdrop of the 405 Freeway.”
According to Cholo, this kind of territorial conflict is especially common in the Santa Monica Mountains because of the encroachment and freeway obstacles young lions are facing. Lions typically require 150-200 square-miles of territory, said Cholo. In the Santa Monica Mountain range those territories are carved up by the 405 and 101 freeways. Young lions must choose between crossing the freeways or challenging dominant lions for their territory.
P-61, who was about four years old, is the 19th mountain lion to be struck and killed on a roadway during the 17 years the NPS has been studying lions in the area. He was the eighth lion outfitted with a GPS collar to be killed on a roadway in that time.
The only other lion known to have successfully crossed the 405 Freeway is Griffith Park’s famed resident lion P-22. That lion was not being tracked with a GPS collar at the time, so little is known about where and when he made the trek.
According to the National Park Service, another lion named P-18 was fatally struck by a vehicle in the same area of freeway while attempting a crossing in 2011, and another lion that was not being tracked by researchers was struck and killed in 2009.
Freeways acting as physical barriers to migration have long been identified as threats to the continued survival of mountain lions in the area. At least one study has suggested that the lions will be extinct within 50 years due to the lack of breeding partners, leading to rampant inbreeding among the current population.
An $87 million wildlife crossing bridge — financed largely by private donors — is being planned for the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. Supporters hope to have it finished in 2023.
Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said the videos show lions being lions.
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“This is what male mountain lions instinctively do and it did not end up in P-61’s favor,” Sikich said in a statement. “The difference is that this is real-life mountain lion behavior playing out in an urban and fragmented landscape that is complicated by busy roads and development.”
For many in Bel Air, the footage of mountain lions hunting one another in front of their homes is disconcerting.
It’s a good reminder that Los Angeles is mountain lion country as is most of Southern California, said Cholo.
“This is all mountain lion country, so there shouldn’t be a real shock that they are living amongst us,” she said.