Newborn mountain lion is the poster kitten for wildlife corridors

April 6, 2017, 3:35 p.m.

The National Parks Service is celebrating the birth of a new mountain lion kitten born in the Santa Monica Mountains. But while the tiny, blue-eyed cougar is good news, she's also a sign of trouble. P-53, as the kitten has been dubbed, is the daughter of the female P-23, and the father is most likely the female's half-brother, P-30.

The pairing and resulting kitten is proof that mountain lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains have a limited genetic pool, since their mobility is limited by urban development in all directions.

“The good news is that local mountain lions continue to reproduce successfully,” said Jeff Sikich, biologist for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “Unfortunately, these animals are stuck on an island of habitat, with very little movement in and out of the Santa Monica Mountains, which has led to multiple cases of inbreeding.”

P-53 may become a poster cat like another now-famous Los Angeles mountain lion, P-22. The big male cat has taken up residence in Griffith Park. A photo of P-22 walking under the Hollywood sign taken by Steve Winter has become an iconic image for urban wildlife. That photograph also helped launch a campaign to raise funds for a wildlife overpass across U.S. Route 101, an eight-lane highway.

Such corridors that allow cougars and other wildlife to travel between fragments of habitat go a long way toward staving off inbreeding and keeping populations healthy.

In our article "Why wild animals need wildlife corridors," Kim Vacariu, western director for the Wildlands Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit group that focuses on habitat connectivity notes, "When large carnivores cannot travel to find new mates and different kinds of food, they begin to suffer genetic breakdown because they're inbreeding. And that is the precursor to extinction. Once the genetic breakdown starts to happen, they are more susceptible to different kinds of diseases, and their life spans become much more fragile."

P-53's story highlights that this is happening to mountain lions in southern California. According to the National Park Service, "Southern California’s extensive freeway network has been shown to be a major barrier for wildlife and has particularly hemmed in the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains. A proposed wildlife crossing on U.S. Highway 101 in Agoura Hills would provide a connection between the genetically isolated population in the Santa Monica Mountains and the robust populations to the north."

If you'd like to show your support for the construction of a wildlife overpass — the creation of which could spark other large-scale corridor projects across the nation — visit Save LA Cougars, a project of the National Wildlife Federation.