- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A mountain lion that was part of a National Park Service wildlife study was struck and killed this month on a Los Angeles-area freeway, an all-too-common fate for the big cats living in an increasingly urbanized environment.

Biologists this week confirmed the dead cougar was P-39, an adult female with three 6-month-old kittens, the National Park Service said Thursday.

The approximately 5-year-old mountain lion was struck Dec. 3 on State Route 118 in the northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley but it wasn’t immediately reported to the park service and the animal’s remains were not recovered.

P-39 had been outfitted with a GPS tracking collar that placed her in the general area a few hours before the collision. Biologists suspected she was the lion that was hit, but the collar stopped working and witnesses to the accident did not report seeing a collar.

Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, searched repeatedly and finally found the damaged GPS collar on the center divider of the multi-lane freeway, indicating it came off P-39 due to the impact, the park service said.

P-39 was the 13th mountain lion known to have been killed on a freeway or road in the Southern California study region since 2002.

It’s assumed P-39’s kittens - P-50, P-51 and P-52 - were not hit by the vehicle but their fate remained unknown, said Kate Kuykendall, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.

The kittens did not have tracking collars and they had been living in the Santa Susana Mountains, which line the northern fringe of Los Angeles.

At their age it’s unlikely they have the hunting skills to survive without their mother, according to Sikich.

“It’s very unlikely we’ll ever know how this story ends,” Kuykendall told The Associated Press. “They are in a pretty remote area of the mountains.”

If the kittens could be tracked it would be a difficult decision as to whether they should be removed from the wild to spend their lives in a rescue facility.

“If they did have a tracking device I think it would be a challenging situation,” Kuykendall said.

The park service said P-39 was captured and collared in April 2015 and had at least two litters, including the latest trio.

She had stayed in wilderness north of the 118 freeway until successfully crossing the highway for the first time a few days before Dec. 3 and she had made a kill to the south of the freeway, Kuykendall said.

Since 2002, the National Park Service study has been studying how mountain lions survive in fragmented wilderness in and around the Santa Monica Mountains, hemmed in by major highways and urban sprawl.

Recently, a mountain lion killed alpacas on two ranches in the Santa Monica range near Malibu, triggering debate over whether it should be killed. A rancher who obtained a permit to shoot that lion later said she never intended to do so.

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