California's mountain lions face extinction – but farmers slam moves to protect the species

CALIFORNIA is considering classifying a number of mountain lion species as “threatened" – but landowners and developers aren’t happy about it, and are considering legal action.

Six subspecies of the big cats have already had their status elevated to threatened, following a petition by conservation groups in April, which resulted in the California Fish and Game Commission voting unanimously to consider a proposal.

The commission has a year to review whether the lions’ status should be permanently classified as “threatened” or revert back to “specially protected species."

What are California's big cats?

The mountain lion goes by a number of names – puma, cougar, panther – but the usually resilient species is declining in numbers.

An increasing number of highways have caused populations to become isolated and inbred, and young lions can't migrate out to establish their own home ranges – resulting in a drop in genetic diversity.

The cats are also killed by vehicles: around 100 die every year after getting hit by cars.

Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told The Sun the vote is “an historic moment for California’s big cats."

Scientists have predicted the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountain lion populations could go extinct within 50 years.

But, as Yap pointed out, that’s only if the status quo stays the same.

Yap said: “If things get worse, if inbreeding depression occurs – which causes reproductive issues, heart failure, and makes the animals more susceptible to disease.

"They could go extinct as soon as 12 years’ time," she said.

"These two populations are the most studied, but there’s indications that other groups, such as the Santa Cruz mountain lions, are also struggling, and following a similar trajectory," Yap added.

History of mountain lions in the Golden State

The Santa Ana and Santa Monica populations are particularly isolated, due to the development of highways that basically divides their habitat.

The real turning point, Yap said, were two studies released in 2018 and 2019 that painted a “dire picture” for the future of mountain lions.

“The inbreeding, coupled with high incidents of human-caused mortality, such as vehicle collisions and poisoning, means we have to move very quickly.”

A 2018 report found 92 percent of dead mountain lions tested had detectable levels of second generation anticoagulant rodenticides – essentially rat poison – in their blood.

The CBD is calling for state-level protections for the lions, and hopes the proposal will mean authorities would have to take measures that ensure new highway or development projects have low impact on the lions.

Yap also hopes the depredation permits (official permission to kill certain animals), which she says result in at least 100 mountain lion deaths a year, will decrease if the proposal becomes law.

A report released earlier this year found that during Covid-19 lockdowns –when locals were forced to stay indoors – the rate of mountain lion deaths declined 58 percent from the 10-week period pre-order to the 10 week period post-order.

In response to the center’s petition, which was first lodged in June 2019, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recommended that the listing might be warranted.

From there, the Fish and Game Commission took its vote.

Prior to the proposal, "any mountain lion that is encountered while in the act of pursuing, inflicting injury to, or killing livestock, or domestic animals, may be taken immediately by the owner of the property or the owner's employee or agent," according to the Fish and Game Code.

According to a spokesperson for the CDFW, "mountain lion sightings and threats to livestock are rare. Threats to humans are even more rare.

"While these animals have protections as a candidate species, we are working very closely with property owners to teach exclusion methods to ensure that mountain lions do not have access to their livestock."

What's the opposition?

"As a government agency, we often have opposition to decisions we make," the CDFW spokesperson said.

"Our director often states that for every decision he makes, he gets sued twice – once by people who believe he has gone too far, and a second time by people who believe he hasn’t gone far enough.

"We have heard opposition to the change in policy, and the Commission has heard it about the potential listing decision.

The spokesperson said the wildlife agency has "heard from countless Californians who want protections for mountain lions."

Farmers and ranchers argue they would not be able to protect their livestock if the proposal goes ahead, while developers could be curbed from future housing projects, and transportation proposals would need a major overhaul to protect the lions’ areas of passage.

Damien Schiff is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm that defends “individual liberty and property rights."

“The mountain lion is a species that attracts a lot of attention from the general public,” he told The Sun.

“It could have a significant impact on ranchers and other private property owners in the state.”

Exactly 30 years ago, California voters approved Prop 117 – the California Wildlife Protection Act which prohibited the sport hunting of the region’s mountain lion.

In 1999, the act was amended to allow lions to be killed to protect livestock.

Between 2011 and 2019, at least 1,846 permits were issued to take down mountain lions, and a minimum of 802 mountain lions were killed.

Additionally, between 2011 and 2013, multiple mountain lions could be taken on a single depredation permit – meaning a greater number of animals may have been killed.

In 2019, the department began issuing depredation permits that only authorized non-lethal removal of mountain lions, under a new “three-strike” policy.

The policy also required landowners to try non-lethal methods of deterrence before being granted a permit to kill.

Although this policy only applies to certain areas, the geographical boundaries were expanded in February to include more areas.

This came after the death of P-56, one of the last remaining male mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains.

Mountain lions' habitat encompasses around a third of the state, so if passed into law, the proposal could have a wide-reaching impact.

Housing and transport in the area

Schiff cites housing development as one of the main areas that the classification would impact.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “There are two populations of mountain lions whose habitats in Central and Southern California overlap significantly with areas primed for residential development.

“There’s a worry that this could make projects too costly, and restrict home building."

Schiff said the classification could impact those “trying to address the affordable housing crisis in California."

Around 151,000 people are homeless in California, and with the housing crisis increasingly getting worse, the primary driver has been attributed to a lack of affordable housing.

In Los Angeles County alone, there is a shortage of 551,807 rental homes for households earning less than $41,500, and more than 47,000 homeless people.

“One way to deal with that crisis is to increase the number of homes,” Schiff said.

“When that supply is threatened or reduces, that becomes a concern for more than just individual developers. To the average person, if they’re going to be impacted, it will be through housing.”

However, none of the affordable housing developers The Sun spoke to said they were aware of any potential issues, with one saying “it is not on our radar."

What’s happening with California’s big cats?

The mountain lion goes by a number of names – puma, cougar, panther – but the usually resilient species is declining in numbers.

An increasing number of highways have caused populations to become isolated and inbred, and young lions can’t migrate out to establish their own home ranges.

The cats are also killed by vehicles: around 100 die every year after getting hit by cars.

The Santa Ana and Santa Monica populations are particularly isolated, due to the development of highways that basically divides the lions' habitat.

California is considering classifying a number of mountain lion species as “threatened."

Six subspecies of the big cats have already had their status elevated to threatened.

One area the proposal will certainly impact is transport. The Peninsular Range, in the Santa Ana mountains, south of Los Angeles and north of San Diego, is a habitat for pumas, but is divided by the 10-lane Interstate 15 highway.

The area is surrounded by urbanization and a growing population of around 20million people. A 2014 study showed that the Santa Ana pumas recently went through a "population bottleneck," when the population's size sharply decreased to a fraction of its original size.

In the Santa Monica mountains, a study was conducted to judge the impact of transport infrastructure on the pumas.

During the study period, just one lion was found to have crossed Highway 101.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) told The Sun the agency is “actively working” with the CDFW to “ensure mutual goals of species protection and efficient government are achieved."

“Caltrans already works actively on wildlife connectivity, throughout the state, as evidenced by the dozens of undercrossings to aid mountain lion passage, and passage of their prey species,” the spokesperson continued. 

Protecting local livestock

Perhaps the most obvious group to be impacted by the proposal is that of landowners, who regularly apply for depredation permits to protect their livestock.

“I suspect some of the environmental groups who are advocating for the listing, their hope is that the listing will do away with the permitting structure and that it would become very difficult to obtain [depredation] permits,” Schiff said.

The main issue that seems to concern ranchers is whether the existing arrangement of granting depredation permits to protect livestock would continue.

Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association, said: "Oftentimes ranchers will have their cattle, and calves, pursued, attacked or even killed by mountain lions who see them as a food source.

“If the mountain lion is classified as a threatened species, it would impact Californian ranchers, as that would prohibit take of mountain lions. Take includes any pursuit, injury, capture or killing of a threatened species.

“It would mean my members would not be able to protect their livestock. Even if they saw lions attacking their cattle, they wouldn’t be able to shoot to protect damage to their livestock.”

However, Wilbur added, when the commission advanced lions to candidacy for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the CDFW tried to placate opponents of the proposal, via Proposition 117.

“It explicitly provides protection measures for livestock owners whose livestock are threatened by mountain lions. And the department tried to harmonize the two conflicting statutes, they clarified that take of mountain lions that are pursuing, injuring or killing livestock, is still permitted.

Now that the proposal is rolling out, it won't be more difficult to obtain a takedown permit, but it will "take more time," CDFW said.

"The stepwise approach requires that they employ non lethal methods before getting a permit to kill a lion."

Despite this, ranchers would still be impacted, Wilbur asserted.

“If one of your animals was killed by a mountain lion, you used to be able to get a lethal permit to take that lion. You could pursue, hunt, and kill that lion to protect your livestock from future attack."

Regardless of the reasoning, the state and the various government agencies appear to be combining forces to help mitigate this pressing human-wildlife conflict.

And as towns and cities continue to expand, and highways stretch farther and farther, conservation nonprofits are ramping up their efforts to push for protection for animals.

"It's an important fight," Yap explained simply. "And if we don't fight it, who else will?"

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