As a biologist, I’m disappointed to see Tulare County supervisors citing misguided fears about mountain lions to justify opposing efforts to protect cougars in Southern California and Central Coast under the California Endangered Species Act [in reference to the Nov. 20 front page article titled “County out on adding mountain lions to endangered species list” written by Paul Myers].
Although mountain lion populations in the Sierras are relatively healthy, roads and development have created isolated, inbred mountain lion populations in other parts of the state. Such extreme fragmentation, along with car strikes and other threats, are driving these cougar populations toward extinction.
Fear of these big cats drove bounties and extermination campaigns in the early 1900s. But here’s the reality: Mountain lions are afraid of humans and avoid us as much as they can, according to recent studies from UC Santa Cruz. They just need adequate access to suitable habitat.
It’s time we transformed our fear into respect for these amazing animals. Protecting mountain lions by improving habitat connectivity greatly benefits us.
Without mountain lions, increased deer populations can overgraze vegetation and cause stream banks to erode. Many scavengers, like critically endangered California condors and numerous insects, would lose a reliable food source. Fish, songbirds, amphibians, reptiles, rare native plants and butterflies would diminish if this apex predator were lost.
State protections would foster connectivity between struggling mountain lion populations that would improve their genetic health and chances of long-term survival. Such connectivity would also improve public safety, especially on roads.
People in California die every year because their cars collide with deer and other animals. Thousands of wildlife vehicle collisions occur every year on California roads, causing property damages of about $300 million annually, according to UC Davis and Caltrans. Other states, including Colorado and Arizona, have shown that wildlife crossings can reduce such collisions by as much as 95 percent.
Mountain lions offer even more direct benefits to human health and public safety. In the eastern U.S., where cougars are extinct, an overabundance of deer has resulted in increased vehicle-deer collisions and increased tick-borne illness among humans.
It’s true that new development and infrastructure projects would require more thoughtful planning to minimize impacts to mountain lions in Southern California and along the Central Coast. But improving our ability to safely coexist with mountain lions to foster California’s unique biodiversity, improve public safety, and preserve quality of life is a worthwhile investment.
Center for Biological Diversity