Wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich knows how to get his mountain lion
Sikich is a world-known tracker of carnivores for groups aiming to study and keep them alive. His territory in recent years: The Santa Monica Mountains. His quarry: mountain lions
Sikich has safely caught hundreds of carnivores large and small, most recently leopards in South Africa for the Cape Leopard Trust and mountain lions and jaguars in Peru for the World Wildlife Fund. He has weighed them, measured their teeth, taken blood samples and attached radio tracking collars.
But his main work for the last decade has been somewhere less exotic: right here in Southern California, where as a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service he has trailed cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
As part of the study, Sikich has twice captured and collared P-22, the male puma that in February became the first mountain lion to be photographed in Griffith Park. The recapture — to replace a nonfunctioning GPS device — followed months during which Sikich drove his government pickup in and around the park, using an antenna to pick up very high frequency signals still beaming from the cougar's collar. Just after sunrise one August morning, Sikich and a colleague hiked in and spotted the cat, relaxing in a boulder-strewn ravine. Sikich, 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, clambered onto an overhanging limb to survey his quarry, about 10 feet away. The cat didn't move. "He knew I was there," Sikich said.
Studying big carnivores requires patience. For every discouraging finding about the Santa Monica Mountains lions — increased inbreeding, males fighting to the death over territory — Sikich is buoyed by hopeful news, such as the California Department of Transportation's effort to secure a grant to build a $10-million wildlife corridor across the 101 at Liberty Canyon Road.
Not every lion, after all, can be as lucky as P-22, the puma that managed to cross the 101 and the 405 — perhaps via a bridge or culvert — to enter Griffith Park. After Sikich found the lion in that ravine in August, he raced on foot to his truck and returned an hour later with capture equipment. He climbed back onto the tree branch and used a silent dart pistol to deliver a sedative. Three minutes later, P-22 was asleep, and Sikich lowered himself into the animal's hiding space."He appeared healthy and had a nice fat belly, so he must have recently been eating," Sikich said.The new GPS collar, Sikich reports, has been working great so far