Mountain lions will disappear ‘within our lifetime’ from parts of California, groups warn

Saying mountain lions on the Central Coast and Southern California are at risk of extinction, conservation groups petitioned the state Tuesday to list the wild cats as threatened or endangered under California’s Endangered Species Act.

Their biggest threat: people, of course.

The petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation is not to protect mountain lions statewide. Rather, it identifies six unique populations of wild cats on the coast, from south of San Francisco to Santa Monica. It’s there that researchers in 2018 found isolated populations with poor reproductive and genetic health.

Listing lions as threatened or endangered would trigger protections under the California Environmental Quality Act process during development and help preserve wildlife corridors for lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Ana Mountains, Santa Susana Mountains, Simi Hills and the Coast Range, the petition says. Movement of lions between populations would increase genetic diversity, researchers argue.

“Hemmed in by highways and sprawl, these cats are being run over and poisoned (by rodenticide) and face plummeting genetic diversity. Some populations appear headed for extinction. With protection under the Act, state and local agencies will have to work more carefully to manage these threats,” said Rebecca Fuoco with the Center.

There is no definitive population estimate of mountain lions statewide, or in many regions. However, through genetic testing, researchers have identified 10 unique populations of cougars across the state. Each of those populations shows a shared genetic history, as well as unique challenges and opportunities for survival.

The mountain lion P-22 of the Santa Monica Mountains appears in a scene from the documentary “The Cat That Changed America.” Courtesy photo

Mountain lions there face a number of threats, but the “the greatest challenges stem from habitat loss and fragmentation.”

That means that while conserved wildland areas do provide mountain lion habitat, development makes it increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible for lions to cross through fences and roads to get to other prime habitat. That leads to inbreeding and can potentially push young males looking for new territory into populated areas where they’re more likely to be killed.

Hunting mountain lions already is prohibited, but they can be killed if the owner of livestock suffers a loss by mountain lion. Listing the cats as endangered may affect the process for obtaining a depredation permit.

The process has already been modified in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains, where the Department of Fish and Wildlife requires livestock owners to employ non-lethal measures to deter lions, like fencing and livestock enclosures, before they can apply for a lethal “take” permit.

“It’s possible the department could create a similar process for depredation permits throughout Southern California and the Central Coast in order to provide greater protections for these populations,” J.P. Rose, an attorney at the Center said in an email to The Tribune.

According to the petition, estimated total adult population in these areas are:

  • Between 33 and 66 total adults in Central Coast North
  • 113 to 226 in Central Coast Central
  • 5 to 10 in Central Coast South
  • 31 to 62 in the Santa Ana Mountains
  • 10 to 20 in San Gabriel/San Bernardino Mountains
  • 63 to 126 in the Eastern Peninsular Range

“Clearly, Central Coast and Southern California mountain lion populations are succumbing to anthropogenic pressures, and without immediate action to restore and enhance connectivity between the populations and suitable habitat, they will be lost, potentially within our lifetimes,” the petition says.

It generally takes about two years to evaluate whether a new species should be added to the endangered list.

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