Threatened local mountain lions win new protections … for now

With threats growing for mountain lion populations in Southern California and beyond, the state Fish and Game Commission on Thursday, April 16, took a key vote that gives the cats temporary protective status in six geographic areas — including the Santa Ana, Santa Monica, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.

The vote also launches a year-long study by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the accuracy of claims and scientific data indicating that the animals in these mountain ranges are endangered or could become endangered in the near future. The commission will then determine whether permanent protective status is merited, with temporary protections continuing until then.

“There’s an extraordinary urgency for action to preserve this population,” said Commissioner Samantha Murray prior to the unanimous vote.

Mountain lions of the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains are in particular jeopardy, according to a 2019 study by University of Nebraska and UC Davis researchers. Hemmed in by development and freeways, the cougars in those ranges face the threat of being unable to reproduce because of inbreeding.

The 2019 reports determined that those lions have a moderate to near-certain chance for extinction in the coming decades unless new cats — and their fresh genes — find a way into the ranges. Freeway crossings have been proposed to accomplish that in both locations but so far there is not adequate funding.

Mountain lions also face threats from rat poison, authorized killing of cats that have attacked livestock, motor vehicles and wildfires. All of those dangers have cost mountain lions their lives in the Southern California ranges in recent years.

Ranchers object

The new protections are likely to include additional scrutiny of building and road construction in the six designated areas. It also could include stricter regulation on rat poison in the areas as well as increased fencing to keep the animals off roads, promotion of wildlife crossing plans and tighter rules for issuing depredation permits for mountain lions that have attacked livestock.

The petition for protective status was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation, and sports the endorsement of 87 other national, state and local environmental groups.

Opponents include farmers and cattlemen. Writing on behalf of ranchers in his district, state Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, a Madera County Republican, expressed concern that protective status would restrict the ability to shoot cats that kill cattle and other farm animals.

“Putting obstacles or further burdens on a rancher’s ability to protect their livestock places at risk their ability to put food on the table of millions of people,” he wrote in a letter to the commission.

Some in the home construction industry opposed the measure, concerned that it would restrict new building. And Wes Myers, a farmer with property in both the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Joaquin Valley, also argued that the proposed protections were inappropriate — including in the Los Angeles area.

“The Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding recreational areas are not appropriate habitats for these predators and that fact can be seen through inbreeding, close proximity to urban areas and smaller habitat size,” he wrote the commission. “Please do not let the misguided intentions of these few urban representatives and few very vocal constituents guide this commission’s decisions on state wildlife protections.”

Changing attitudes

Mountain lions’ habitat ranges from Canada to Chile and their overall population is fairly robust with little threat of extinction, thanks in part to protections that have been established over the years. But populations in a number of locales, typically in or near urbanized areas, are in danger of disappearing.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated there are 4,000 to 6,000 of the cats in California, with the number buoyed over the years by incremental changes in law.

From 1907 to 1963, the state paid a bounty for dead mountain lions, which then were widely considered a threat to people and their domestic animals. In 1971, a moratorium was issued on hunting the cats for sport and, in 1990, voters approved Proposition 117, which banned such hunting.

The animals still could be killed if they posed a threat to people or domestic animals, but in 2013 a law was passed banning the killing of the animals for simply wandering through an urban or suburban area.

Lethal depredation permits are issued for killing mountain lions that have preyed upon livestock. But since 2017 those permits are issued in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountain ranges only if a series of non-lethal efforts have been made to keep the domestic animals safe and the lion has attacked at least three times.

After one of only two known adult male lions in the Santa Monica Mountains was shot and killed under the purview of a permit on Jan. 27 in response to several attacks on livestock, officials extended the “three strikes” rule to four other areas.

The lions also scored a protective victory earlier this month when a Superior Court judge sent the developer of a proposed 270-acre neighborhood in Temecula back to the drawing board because it would have intruded on cougar habitat near a potential 15 Freeway wildlife crossing. Such development is likely to face even more difficulty in winning approval as a result of Thursday’s vote by the Fish and Game Commission.

Saving the cats

Besides the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountain ranges, the commission’s decision applies to the small population of lions spanning the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, as well as the big cats of the Eastern Peninsular Range in eastern San Diego County, those in the Santa Cruz Mountains and those in a stretch of central coast reaching from Monterey Bay to Ventura.

Some specifics of the new protective status remain unclear, but J.P. Rose of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that state agencies now have a legal mandate to protect mountain lions.

“For Caltrans, this could include building wildlife crossings over or under existing freeways or as part of freeway expansion projects,” he said. “For the Department of Pesticide Regulation, this may include re-evaluation of the use of deadly rat poisons in mountain lion habitat.”

Among other suggestions included in the petition to the commission is a dedication of Wildlife Conservation Board and Habitat Conservation Fund money for acquiring lion habitat and building freeway crossings.

A private coalition, Save L.A. Cougars, has raised $14 million toward a $60 million wildlife bridge over the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. The crossing would allow the Santa Monica Mountains cats to interact with a much broader population to the north.

To help introduce fresh genes to the lions of the Santa Ana Mountains, students and faculty at Cal Poly Pomona have developed several plans for a crossing of the 15 Freeway in Temecula. An overpass there would cost an estimated $18 million, a culvert underpass is priced at $10 million and improvements to an existing underpass is tagged at $570,000.