The California Fish and Game Commission, on April 16, will consider listing southern California and Central Coast mountain lions under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The commission is accepting comments from the public until April 10. The hearing will be held livestream because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent research shows these mountain lions, the last large carnivores in the region, could face extinction in less than 50 years. As they struggle to adapt to the increased frequency of wildfires and drought, mountain lion populations in Southern California and on the Central Coast are being profoundly impacted by the expansion of human activity across the landscape.
What remains of their original range has been carved up by development and superhighways, isolating family groups on shrinking islands of habitat where they are increasingly exposed to rat poisons, poachers, and vehicle collisions, and killed because of conflicts with unprotected livestock.
Populations in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains have become genetically isolated in what scientists describe as an “extinction vortex.” A 2019 study predicted that if inbreeding gets worse, mountain lions could disappear from these ranges within 15 years.
Lions in the Central Coast region, including Los Padres National Forest, show similar patterns of increasing isolation and decreasing population.
In February, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife determined there is “sufficient scientific information available” to indicate that protection under the CESA may be warranted and recommended that listing be considered by the Fish and Game Commission.
If the commission agrees, the department will conduct a study of these specific mountain lion populations. The commission will then host another hearing, based on a peer-reviewed report of that study, and will determine whether to formally protect the species under the act.
CESA protection would ensure the survival of mountain lions is taken into account when projects are proposed in their habitat. Planners would ensure that core habitats are protected and vital connections between populations suffering from isolation are preserved or restored.
“This would facilitate the building of critical wildlife crossings over or under highways to connect breeding populations,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director at Los Padres ForestWatch. “It could fund the improvement of existing crossings so mountain lions use them.”
Wildlife crossings have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by more than 90 percent in other states, including Colorado and Utah, saving human and animal lives.
The listing would not necessarily block development in mountain lion habitat. If alternative projects are not feasible for economic, social, or other specific reasons, projects may be approved with the provision of mitigation and enhancement measures.
Protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act would also prompt a reevaluation of the widespread sale and use of second-generation rodenticides in mountain lion habitat.
Second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides not only poison the rodents they target, but the predator that eats the rodent, and the scavengers that eat both, on through the food chain for weeks. Biologists have documented the presence of anticoagulant rodenticide compounds in 21 of 22 local mountain lions they tested, including a three-month-old kitten.
While hunting mountain lions has been illegal in California since 1990, at least 100 mountain lions are legally killed in the state each year. State officials can issue depredation permits to kill a mountain lion that has injured livestock or pets.
“One of only two radio-collared breeding males in the Santa Monica mountains was killed this year under a under a depredation permit,” said Rebecca August, director of advocacy at Los Padres ForestWatch. “Protection under the CESA would likely limit the further killing of protected populations of mountain lions.”
Mountain lions have lived in California for tens of thousands of years. They are “ecosystem engineers” who keep other populations — especially rodents — in check and their kills provide food for scavengers like the critically endangered California condor.
Their presence helps maintain diverse habitats that support a multitude of fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, mammal, insect, and invertebrate species.
“The absence of mountain lions on the landscape may mean degraded ecosystems and decreased biodiversity,” said August. “Their protection is critical.”
The public can watch and participate during the comment period ending on April 10. Comments can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by submitting through an easy form at LPFW.org/Lions.