September 25, 2017

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

 

Book Launch Event and Fundraiser—“When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors” ­

PHOTO BY STEVE WINTER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 2013

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

The shot of P-22 in Griffith Park was taken by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter.

Conservationist Beth Pratt-Bergstrom has lived and worked in some of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the world, including Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

When she became the National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) California director she didn’t expect to find inspiration in Los Angeles’ infamous urban sprawl, smog and traffic. That was before she met P-22 (P for Puma), the mountain lion born in the Santa Monica Mountains who crossed two major Southland freeways and navigated miles of densely developed cityscape to make a home for himself in Griffith Park.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

NPS ecologist and mountain lion expert Jeff Sikich with Pratt-Bergstrom. Sikich is responsible for finding and tagging local mountain lions for the NPS.

“P-22 was a life-changing epiphany,” Pratt-Bergstrom told the Topanga Messenger. “Los Angeles was not wildlife friendly, yet here was this story.”

That story inspired Pratt-Bergstrom to take a closer look at other urban wildlife successes. The result was her book, “When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California,” which was officially launched on August 21 at the historic Mountain Mermaid in the heart of Topanga.

It was an appropriate setting; 85 years ago, Topanga resident and lifelong wildlife advocate Vance Joseph Hoyt published a best selling book about a local mountain lion he named Gato. The fictionalized account of Hoyt’s true life experiences raising the big cat with an orphaned mule deer fawn called Malibu made the case for coexisting with wildlife in an era when there were almost no protections for wild animals or their habitat.

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

People were invited to take a selfie with this full-sized cutout of P-22 who became the poster child for urban wildlife conservation when he crossed two freeways and navigated miles of densely developed cityscape to make his home in Griffith Park.

Nearly a hundred years later, Pratt-Bergstrom’s book echoes Hoyt’s call for compassionate coexistence, but with a new optimism that things may actually be changing for the better.

She says she found inspiration and encouragement in the stories she researched.

“It’s not all bad news all the time,’ she said. “People are doing good.”

Pratt-Bergstrom said that the process of researching her book led her to a new understanding of the nature of wilderness.

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

Beth Pratt-Bergstrom (l), a driving force behind the Liberty Canyon overpass, and Mountain Mermaid owner, Bill Buerge, introduce her book to an eager audience. The author said she initially visualized the project as a modern wildlife guide. “There really isn’t a good modern book on [California] wildlife,” she said. “It’s a gap to be filled.”

“National Park wildlife refuges are needed, but they have to be connected,” she said, explaining that urban conservation and habitat creation is an increasingly critical component of survival for species as different as monarch butterflies and bears. All over California, people are working to create habitat and make room for wild neighbors, she said.

The author said she initially visualized the project as a modern wildlife guide. “There really isn’t a good modern book on [California] wildlife,” she said. “It’s a gap to be filled.”

The turn the book took was a surprise to its author. “P-22 changed not only the direction of the book, but also my life,” she said.

P-22 made national headlines, rapidly becoming an unexpected Hollywood celebrity and the poster child for the urban wildlife conservation movement. Pratt-Bergstrom contacted the reporter who broke the story of P-22 and arranged to meet with local National Park Service ecologist and mountain lion expert Jeff Sikich.

“Jeff is my hero,” she said. “I realized that there is a major wildlife conservation paradigm shift underway: an increasing understanding that nature can find ways to thrive in even the most urban environments, and that connectivity is the key for wildlife survival.”

In the chapter on P-22, the author writes, “Los Angeles has been deemed a ‘land of magical improvisation,’ and in this new zeitgeist of urban wildlife relationships, it seems to be fulfilling this description as well.”

She points out that, “[Los Angeles’] 468 square miles of land and 34 square miles of water extend to the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, include nine lakes, one river and a million trees. Within its borders are 390 public parks and 15,710 acres of parkland.”

“Surprised?” she asks. “Most people—even some who live in LA—are not aware of the immense connection the city still retains to the natural world. Los Angeles has made nature its own, woven its own unique cultural landscape into the physical one.”

While P-22 and the other local mountain lions that are part of the NPS research program are at the heart of the book, Pratt-Bergstrom brings together dozens of urban wildlife success stories that include the now famous gray foxes that have found a safe haven on the Facebook campus in Silicon Valley; rice farmers who have made room for the endangered sandhill crane; Los Angeles elementary school students who have turned their urban campus into a wildlife haven; and the two-year journey of the entire town of Alpine, which became the nation’s first National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat.

News that the first black bear in over a hundred years has found its way to the Santa Monica Mountains broke too late to be included in the book, but Pratt-Bergstrom said that the presence of the bear, now documented at two remote locations in the Santa Monica Mountains, shows urban conservation is working. “Wildlife is starting to adapt,” she said. “People are making way for nature.”

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

Volunteer Monica Dunahee shows off Dancer, the Barn Owl, from the Nature of Wildworks (natureofwildworks.org), that was also recognized for its work in wildlife conservation and education. The non-profit rescues and rehabilitates wildlife and travels to schools and events to educate Angelenos about coexisting with wildlife.

At the launch party, Pratt-Bergstrom had praise for the Topanga community’s habitat restoration efforts, which include receiving NWF certification earlier this year.

“Topanga is Los Angeles’ first certified National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “It’s a wonderful community. I’m really excited to be here.”

She awarded NWF Wildlife Habitat certification to Mermaid proprietor Bill Buerge, and master gardener Sergio Jimenez and his daughter Luna, the Mermaid’s father-and-daughter butterfly conservation and education team.

The monarchs started to become extinct,” Luna Jimenez said. “When we found out we started planting milkweed and nectar plants, more and more; now we raise and release butterflies.”

“It gets a little bigger every year,” Sergio Jimenez added. “The hardest part is to start.”

The Mermaid’s neighbors at Nature of Wildworks, who were on hand with a barn owl, baby opossum and other wildlife ambassadors, were also recognized for their work in wildlife conservation and education. The non-profit rescues and rehabilitates wildlife and travels to schools and events to educate Angelenos about conservation and coexistence.

Pratt-Bergstrom said that efforts like that of the Topanga community are essential for recovering the natural world.

“Just because an area is developed doesn’t mean there’s no place for wildlife,” she said. “Bay porpoises have returned to San Francisco after 65 years and humpbacks are feeding in the bay,” she said. “There are wolves in California again. It’s astonishing, wonderful, and they did it on their own. What else will return if we continue to invite wildlife?”

One of Pratt-Bergstrom’s major goals is the Liberty Canyon Wildlife overpass, which will reconnect the Santa Monica Mountains with the Santa Susanna range and the Simi Hills by bridging the 101 freeway at the one location where there is public open space on both sides of the roadway.

She’s also the driving force behind the NWF’s #savelacougars campaign and sees the project not only as the best chance for the continued survival of Los Angeles mountain lions, but as a major step towards reconnecting habitat throughout California, and ultimately, the nation.

“We are really proud to collaborate on this,” she said. “Caltrans is funded through 2017. We are going to get there.”

NPS ecologist Jeff Sikich, who also spoke at the event, describes the bridge project as the last best chance for mountain lions and other species, including the mountain lion’s smaller cousin, the bobcat, to continue to survive in the Topanga area.

“The Santa Monica Mountains are not large enough to support a mountain lion population without connectivity,” he said, citing more than a decade of NPS research that indicates a potentially catastrophic genetic bottleneck for both cat species.

“The least we can do is build a bridge,” Pratt-Bergstrom told the Messenger. “But if I want this to happen I have to raise $10 million by 2017, and the balance by 2019. Reconnecting ecosystems across ten lanes of highway is an engineering nightmare and $50 million is entirely realistic. It’s not a lot when you look at the cost of other transportation projects. We just have to roll our sleeves up.”

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

The Mermaid, a certified butterfly habitat, displayed butterfly-friendly plants for the garden. For more information go to www.themountainmermaid.com.

Pratt-Bergstrom has a number of projects planned to raise awareness for the overpass project, including following P-22’s path to Griffith Park on foot through the city carrying a mountain lion radio collar on a five-day trek, beginning Oct. 16.

“We’ll have people from the National Park Service and other agencies along to point out stuff. We’ll end up in Griffith Park,” she said.

She encourages Topanga residents to continue the campaign to make local homes, gardens and businesses poison free and wildlife friendly.

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

NWF Wildlife Habitat certification was presented by Mermaid proprietor Bill Buerge (l), to Jennifer Strom and her husband, Carl (not pictured), master gardener Sergio Jimenez and his daughter, Luna, who became the Mermaid’s father-and-daughter butterfly conservation and education team.

“You can create connectivity and wildlife habitat almost anywhere,” she told the Messenger.

PHOTO BY THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION

Wildlife Among Us in the Santa Monica Mountains

Native Lantana is a hardy, drought tolerant plant that attracts butterflies and blooms most of the year.

“A birdbath or pots of nectar plants for butterflies and bees on an apartment balcony, planting milkweed for monarch butterflies and installing bird nesting boxes in the garden. Topanga is to be commended.”

“When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors” is published by Heyday and available at bookstores or directly from the #savelacougars website at #savelacougars.

All proceeds from the book benefit the National Wildlife Federation’s conservation work in California.

More information is available online at www.bethpratt.com or the National Wildlife Federation at nwf.org.