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BIG CATS CONFRONT THE CITY URBANIZATION A THREAT TO THEIR WILD HABITAT.

Byline: Nicholas Grudin Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - A mountain lion spotted lurking in Valencia on Jan. 29 sparked concern from a community already on heightened alert after the brutal mauling weeks before of an Orange County mountain biker.

But wildlife experts say that big cats are far more threatened by their increasing interaction with urban development than people are by cougars.

Despite the surprising sighting behind the Valencia Promenade, there are only a few cougars left roaming the mountains between Santa Clarita and the Pacific Ocean.

``The big challenges here are people - urbanization and habitat loss and fragmentation,'' said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist for the National Parks Service. ``Our job here is to learn about the impacts of those things on wildlife.''

Riley said he had tagged four cougars with collars that send radio and satellite signals, allowing him to track how far the cats roam and what constrains them.

He has followed the animals in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Mountains, which mark this valley's western border. What he's discovered is that the cats are being constrained by development and freeways. Since lions are territorial, only one will have reign over a given habitat - therefore, diminishing open spaces have squeezed out the bulk of the population.

``It seems like there's enough for them to eat - the habitats are suitable - it's just a matter of having enough space,'' Riley said.

And you don't need highly technical locating systems to see the evidence.

At 7:30 a.m. Friday, an adult female mountain lion was killed on Highway 126 after being hit by a car. A few of the indigenous big cats are killed on area roads every year, according to Martin Wall, a patrol lieutenant for the California Department of Fish and Game.

``There must be a healthy population of mountain lions if we keep seeing them hit by cars,'' Wall said.

``But except for the work that Seth is doing, we know very little about mountain lions in the area. They are mostly nocturnal, pretty secretive, and they blend in really well with the environment.''

Riley's work is shedding new light on the area's mountain lions, and how they are affected by the sweeping urban growth.

While there are dozens in the Los Padres National Forest, there are far fewer in the open spaces west of state Highway 126, which runs from Valencia to Ventura. Unless something is done to ensure that wildlife corridors are secured between areas like the Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains, the half-dozen big cats that remain at large in that region could be eradicated, Riley said.

``Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling community, but, at the same time, there are huge open spaces here,'' Riley said. ``There is the amazing potential to preserve the biodiversity - everything from plants and frogs to big predators like mountain lions. But the pumas will probably be the biggest challenge because of how much space they need. ... I feel like it is possible for wildlife, even lions, to survive in a landscape like this if we are willing to preserve enough habitat.''

And although the coexistence of lions and humans is possible, the interaction is not always smooth.

On Jan. 8, a mountain lion stalked and attacked two mountain bikers along a forest-area path in Orange County, killing one and injuring the other.

The cougar that was spotted in Valencia was just feet from a playground and a network of bike paths where children often play.

Likewise, fearful city inhabitants from Palm Desert to Santa Cruz have reported mountain lion sightings.

Jerry Spansail, a patrol captain from the California Department of Fish and Game, said that the cats' apparent abundance - especially after a highly publicized attack - is a misconception.

``After an attack, our calls go up by three or four times the normal,'' Spansail said. ``Every bobcat is a mountain lion. Golden retrievers are mountain lions. A police officer in the Inland Empire shot a house cat.''

Nicholas Grudin, (661) 257-5255

nicholas.grudin(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Seth Riley of the National Park Service uses gadgets like a collar equipped with GPS to track the movement of wild animals.

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 15, 2004
Words:709
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