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Lessons learned from mountain lions in Southern California

March 31, 2009 |  1:22 pm

F50 with kitten eyes behind 2 wks post capture

Tracking a family of radio-collared mountain lions in Southern California's Santa Ana Mountains has provided researchers with insights into what it will take for the large carnivores to survive the region's rapidly urbanizing landscape.

One of the huge cats was tracked across 100 square miles in the span of just a month, underlining the range the animals require. That same lion, however, is currently marooned by development in an area adjacent to the Riverside Freeway in Orange County.

The animal's plight highlights the difficulties mountain lions face when trying to move from one wilderness area to another in Southern California, even though the region is already criss-crossed by corridors created to allow wildlife to navigate through habitat fragmented by development. Trouble is, many of those corridors are not protected from continued urban encroachment.

The findings do not bode well for the Puma concolor, according a study entitled "Conserving Connectivity: Some Lessons From Mountain Lions in Southern California," which appears in the April issue of the scientific journal Conservation Biology. But the big cat's problems could be at least partially  resolved if large, inter-connected natural landscapes are protected as soon as possible.

"Mountain lions require very large areas, so the challenges of protecting these animals are great," said Scott Morrison, director of science for the Nature Conservancy's California chapter, co-author of the study with Walter Boyce, co-director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. "But if we can protect a population of mountain lions, we'll be protecting  a lot of other species as well, everything from shrubs to songbirds."

The study warns that the issues confronting mountain lions in Southern California will soon be experienced elsewhere. With California's population expected to grow by about 18 million people over the next 15 years, the authors urge land-use planners to begin setting aside large swaths of mountain lion habitat.

"Where linkages between large blocks of habitat are still intact," the study concludes, "they should be placed high on the list of conservation priorities, because pro-actively protecting ecological cohesion is far more likely to be successful than trying to salvage it from a fractured landscape."

In the meantime, urban sprawl -- and the prevalence of roads, pets, livestock, pesticides and public safety issues -- are creating a gauntlet for wildlife.

Although mountain lion attacks on humans are rare, about 10 such cats were killed each year from 2001 to 2005 in California because of public safety concerns, the study says. Separately, about 100 of the big cats are killed each year in California in connection with attacks on domestic animals.

"We should expect these kinds of interactions with humans to increase," Morrison said. "So we should design communities in ways that are good for people and wildlife."

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Radio-collared mountain lion in Southern California's Santa Ana Mountains. Credit: D. Krucki / UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

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