Jeff Sikich, right
National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich, right, and his team secure an expandable GPS collar to a tranquilized young female mountain lion named P-25, captured in the Santa Monica mountains, in August so she could be tracked and studied. But the cougar was found dead by hikers in Point Mugu State Park in late October. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

Jeff Sikich has concocted lures from beaver parts, skunk essence and catnip oil. He has used blowpipes to dart furry limbs and lowered drowsing animals from trees.Sikich's instincts in the wild and his humane captures have earned him a place among a cadre of go-to carnivore trackers.Agencies and nonprofit groups across the nation and around the world have enlisted him to capture and collar animals, many of them threatened, so that their eating and mating habits, movements and life spans could be studied.

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