How P-22, Hollywood’s Famous Mountain Lion, Changed Wildlife Conservation In California

p-22
Image courtesy Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

The mountain lion known as P-22 became a media sensation when he decided to call Hollywood home a decade ago. But he’s more than just a pretty face. He taught the city—and the world—a powerful lesson about protecting biodiversity and changed California’s approach to wildlife conservation.

Griffith Park, nestled in the heart of Los Angeles, is not your average city park. It spans more than 4,200 acres—about eight square miles—five times the size of New York’s Central Park. It’s bona fide high desert wilderness, replete with rolling hills dotted with oak, walnut, lilac, mountain mahogany, sage, toyon, and sumac. It’s not uncommon to spot deer, rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, grey foxes, or rattlesnakes on a hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory. But the park’s most famous resident for the past decade is the mountain lion known as P-22. This week, the city is celebrating his ten-year residency in Griffith Park, just up the hill from the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

P-22 comes to Hollywood

P-22 made headlines around the world after he was discovered in 2012 as part of a wildlife study funded by the local organization Friends of Griffith Park (FoGP). His image was captured on camera on the evening of February 12th, after years of reports of mountain lion sightings in the park.

It’s not uncommon for mountain lion sightings to make the news in any part of the country—the solitary animals like their privacy. But P-22’s case was exceptional. Griffith Park is surrounded by highways; for the cougar to make it into the park, he had to cross several of the busiest ones in the U.S. And scientists say that’s exactly what he did.

According to experts and the researchers that have tracked the animal, P-22 was born around 2010 in the Santa Monica Mountains that separate the San Fernando Valley from Malibu, northwest of Griffith Park.

As a young male, P-22 needed to find a territory of his own, or risk fighting larger, stronger mountain lions to stay where he was. That search for a new home took him on a 50-mile journey that involved crossing LA’s busy 405 and 101 freeways before making his way to Griffith Park.

According to FoGP, Griffith Park is the smallest known roaming territory of any mountain lion. The typical range for a male mountain lion extends to about 150 square miles, which keeps gene pools healthy.

Once the mountain lion was caught on camera, the National Park Services tracked P-22 and eventually outfitted him with a tracking collar.

“P-22’s story is legendary because it’s a relatable one of survival and resilience. He is an unprecedented case study of puma adaptation to extremely urbanized habitat. None of us expected to find a mountain lion in Griffith Park, which we thought was way too disconnected from the nearest mountain lion populations by freeways and urbanization. We originally assumed maybe he was only passing through, but now 10 years later, it seems that P-22 is here to stay,” Miguel Ordeñana, FoGP Board member and the first biologist to view the image of P-22 from the Study camera, said in a statement.

In 2014, scientists intervened again when P-22 suffered from the effects of rat poison after eating an animal that had ingested it. The incident caused a public outcry that led the city to eventually pass legislation in 2020 banning the most potent anticoagulant rodenticides.

In true Hollywood fashion, P-22 is also a film star, the subject of the 2017 documentary, The Cat That Changed America, as well as countless backyard sightings caught on security cameras and cell phones. He has an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. And on the days he decides to make his appearance known in the park, the paparazzi descend just like they do when any celebrity is spotted in the beloved neighborhood destination.

Protecting biodiversity

P-22 was also part of the impetus behind the city’s move to become a certified wildlife habitat; Los Angeles is now the biggest city in the country with that distinction. And the mountain lion has played a key role in the National Wildlife Federation’s efforts to build the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing—the world’s largest wildlife crossing set to break ground later this year.

According to NWF California Director and FoGP Advisory Board Member Beth Pratt, the 101 highway has become “this impenetrable wall for wildlife.” She says the crossing will allow both plants and animals the movement they need to survive.

That crossing will come in the way of a 200-foot long bridge that spans over the ten-lane highway, complete with light and noise deflectors. It is the biggest and most expensive project of its kind in the world.

“You’re going to see this ecological transformation,” Pratt recently told NPR. “And that part of it is going to be over one of the busiest freeways in the world—that, to me, is just such a hopeful statement for what’s possible.”

A million species are facing extinction, some in the very near future, in large part due to human activity—razing forests for lumber, palm oil, and to raise other animals, like cattle. The Amazon is particularly at risk. There are victories though; earlier this month, an Ecuadorian court returned rights to 14 Indigenous groups that call more than 23 million acres of rainforest home. And just north of Los Angeles, a new conservation effort five times the size of all of Manhattan is expected to help foster animal movement from Canada through to Mexico.

Urbanization has fractured forests and wild areas across much of the developed world. Approximately a million wild animals are killed on U.S. roads every day. According to NPR, the Department of Transportation has identified nearly two dozen endangered or threatened species directly impacted by the country’s more than four million miles of roads and thoroughfares.

The LA freeway crossing will be key to mountain lion survival—and could see others make their home in Griffith Park eventually. They’re not likely to come in time for P-22 to mate, though. The lifespan of a mountain lion is typically between eight and 13 years. But even as P-22 enters his twilight years, that he has survived in the park for so long speaks to the adaptability of nature. For his defenders, they say it speaks even more loudly to the need to protect it.

“We’re honored by P-22’s presence in Griffith Park, now for a full decade,” said FoGP’s President Gerry Hans. “He’s been an inspiration for a better understanding of urban ecology. Many folks were jittery when we first documented the mountain lion in the Study. But P-22 has taught us that wildlife, even top predators, have their place in nature, even alongside the people of this large city.”


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