Survival in the Santa Monica Mountains is currently a mixed bag for native local wildlife. While hundreds of threatened California red-legged frogs (Rana draytonii) appear to have died in the Woolsey Fire—along with one mountain lion—the first golden eagle nest in nearly 30 years was recently discovered. 

California red-legged frogs are categorized as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act and a “species of special concern” by the State of California. Local biologists began a program in 2014 to reintroduce them to four creeks in the Santa Monica Mountains, where they hadn’t been seen since the 1970s. 

SMM animals

California red-legged frogs

Biologists were only able to reintroduce the frogs after discovering another isolated population north of the Ventura (101) Freeway in 1999. They hoped that relocating eggs from the newly discovered frogs to the Santa Monica Mountain creeks where they used to live would help to re-establish them. By 2017, the experiment seemed to be working.

They appeared to be thriving until the Woolsey Fire burned through their new habitat last November, and then heavy winter rains filled their creeks with mud and debris—clogging up the deep year-round pools they need to breed and lay eggs. Researchers were only able to spot one or two frogs after the fire. 

Three of the reintroduction streams, home to generations of frogs, from tadpoles to adults, were “annihilated,” according to Katy Delaney, a National Park Service (NPS) ecologist who led the project. “With three of the four sites, there’s no aquatic habitat left and not much vegetation.”

NPS decided to continue with the reintroduction program by enlisting the help of the Santa Barbara Zoo; frog eggs from the source location were allowed to hatch into tadpoles in tanks of water. The tadpoles were then released back into two of the four Santa Monica Mountain creeks. It’s still too early to tell if they made it. 

In other animal news, two wildlife nonprofits, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation, officially petitioned the California Fish & Wildlife Commission on June 25 to list the Southern California/Central Coast Mountain Lions as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act—which includes the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

The petition filed last week by the wildlife groups argues that six isolated and genetically distinct cougar clans from the California-Mexico border to Santa Cruz comprise a subpopulation that is threatened by extinction.

“Our mountain lions are dying horrible deaths from car collisions and rat poison, and their populations are at risk from inbreeding,” warned Tiffany Yap, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which presented the petition with the Mountain Lion Foundation. “Without a clear legal mandate to protect mountain lions from the threats that are killing them and hemming them in on all sides, these iconic wild cats will soon be gone from Southern California.”

The latest big cat wandering close to human development was a juvenile female mountain lion spotted up a tree in a trailer park in the Pacific Palisades last week. The 50-pound cat was relocated deeper into the Santa Monica Mountains and made part of the local mountain lion study group. She is now known as P-75.

In a bit of good news, the National Park Service announced that two golden eagle chicks were found in a nest in a remote area of the western Santa Monica Mountains. They say this is the first sighting of the protected species in 30 years. The last known nest was spotted in the Agoura Hills area in the late ‘80s. Historically, Golden Eagles nested throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.

The chicks, a 12-week-old male and female, were spotted when a consultant conducting bird surveys on private property identified the pair and notified authorities. 

In early May, NPS biologists put a colored and numbered band on each chick, which helps scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory monitor their status. The chicks recently left the nest, but will stay with their parents until late fall, learning to hunt. While golden eagles usually hunt rabbits and squirrels, this family’s prey of choice was gulls—seven gull wings were found in the nest at the time of banding.

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