Vehicle strikes. Rat poison. Murders allowed by ranchers and homeowners. The average California mountain lion is more likely to die at the hands of a human than from natural causes.
However, new research suggests that charismatic cats may face less risk from humans in counties where voters supported “pro-environmental” ballot measures, an indication that human attitudes may play a role in survival rates. .
In the state’s first long-term analysis of mountain lion mortality, researchers examined the records of 590 radio-collared cats from Siskiyou counties to San Diego between 1974 and 2020. Of 263 documented deaths, the researchers they were able to determine the cause of 199. Slightly more than half of the deaths were caused by humans.
To the researchers’ surprise, the highest rates of human mortality were not in busy metropolises or agricultural areas, where pumas and ranchers maintain a tense relationship. The most dangerous areas for pumas are regions that the researchers classified as having “intermediate human presence” or rural areas with a lower density of development. These include parts of the Peninsular and Transverse mountain ranges in southern California, as well as the central coast and Sierra Foothills.
In some of the most densely populated areas of California, such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, cougars had the highest survival rates during the study period. This safety net may come from an unlikely source: public opinion.
A common cause of death for mountain lions is so-called predation killings, in which people apply to the state for permission to kill a cat responsible for the deaths of livestock or other domestic animals. But a cattle slaughter does not always lead to a death sentence for the culprit. The authors wondered why.
“We had the idea that, ‘OK, well, there’s no annual vote on whether cougars are good or bad, but in most years, there’s something to do with the environment,” he said. john bensonwildlife ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and leader of the study.
To address the question, albeit indirectly, Benson and his colleagues compiled election results for California propositions related to environmental issues such as watershed conservation, Emissions of greenhouse gases, plastic bags for supermarket and a bond measure for parks and other projects. They found that regional support for these initiatives was an even better predictor of puma survival than the density of goat and sheep farms, where carnivores are more likely to come into conflict with humans.
“We definitely understand that the voting records on environmental issues don’t fully capture the complex views people have about large carnivores, or their tolerance for them,” Benson said.
While the study authors found a correlation between declining death rates and election results, more research is needed to prove a clear link, they said. Benson hopes that ecologists and social scientists will be encouraged to investigate more directly how human attitudes and perceptions affect the survival of large carnivores.
He studypublished in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, brought together data and researchers from nearly a dozen mountain lion research projects across the state, providing an overview of mountain lion mortality and survival in California.
The research did not take into account reproduction rates or the movement of the animals between regions, an important next step in seeing where in the state their populations may be increasing, declining or stable, Benson said.
In a state as vast and diverse as California, threats to cougars abound. While predatory killings, vehicle collisions, poaching, and rodenticide poisoning account for the majority of deaths, cougars also face deadly dangers in the wild. Young cats, in particular, are vulnerable to starvation, disease, and predation from other animals, including unrelated adult male pumas.
a recent Report from the University of California at Davis it recorded 535 deaths between 2015 and 2022. Although the annual rate is declining, it still amounts to one or two cats per week, the scientists said. (That analysis was based on counts from various state agencies and UC researchers, which included collared and uncollared animals. The new research looked at cougars tracked by local wildlife agencies.)
Large highways, especially in southern California, have fragmented the cougar’s habitat, trapping populations in their local mountains and restricting gene flow critical to the species’ survival.
But there are signs that policies aimed at protecting animals, or people’s attitudes towards them, are improving the situation. In the last two decades, the number of deaths from predation has decreased.
That could be for a number of reasons, including a better attitude toward cats and recent protections for those who live in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains. In 2017, California enacted a “three strikes” policy that requires those seeking to eradicate a problem cougar attempt two non-lethal deterrents before resorting to lethal measures.
In 2020, the measure was expanded to protect cougars from Southern California and from the coast to the San Francisco Bay Area. In this swath of the state, mountain lions are listed as candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act. While wildlife officials review the proposal to protect the species, the animals are considered protected under the law. The state ban on hunting mountain lions has been in place since 1990.
In recent years, wildlife officials and advocates have increasingly focused on preventing human-puma conflict.
He cougar conservation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded by wildlife biologist Korinna Domingo, offers education and training to help Californians avoid negative interactions with carnivores on their properties. Among other services, the organization advises owners on how to build cougar-proof enclosures for animals and, in case of conflict, how to resolve it peacefully.
“We are getting better at supporting communities to live with wildlife, because we are not just breaking that lethal management decision,” Domingo said. “Coexistence is the future”.
In the Santa Monica Mountains, ingestion of anticoagulant rodenticides and vehicles remain a major source of deaths. But in recent years, only one lion has died due to predation, a reflection of people’s attitudes, said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service and co-author of the study.
“I think we’re lucky here in Southern California because people have relatively positive feelings about wildlife, and that extends, thankfully, to cougars,” Riley said. “P-22 is kind of the extreme example of that — how interested and connected people ended up feeling toward that individual animal.”
For a decade, P-22 lived among Angelenos in Griffith Park, a 6.5-square-mile habitat tiny for an adult male mountain lion. In Santa Monica, adult males typically occupy 150 square miles.
“It showed what is possible for wildlife and that even a large carnivore can survive and coexist for a long time in an urban area,” Riley said.