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Environment & Science

Mountain lion shot as habitat problem persists for the regional big cat population

Photo by Santa Monica Police Department via PatrickNBCLA/Twitter

California Department of Fish and Game officials shot the mountain lion trapped this morning in Santa Monica. And while it seemed like the jokes were writing themselves earlier tooday (I told a west side friend that at least my neighborhood's pet mountain lion knew to stay in Griffith Park), this is somewhat of a sad turn of events if you're interested in the robustness of the mountain lion population in Southern California. 

DFG's news release went to some trouble to describe why officers on scene had no choice but to shoot the animal: 

Approximately 9:30 a.m., the lion was darted with a tranquilizer by DFG staff in an attempt to immobilize the cat for transport. DFG staff, Santa Monica Police and the Santa Monica Fire Department used three non-lethal methods--the tranquilizer dart, pepper ball, and fire hose--to discourage the lion from leaving the contained area until the tranquilizer took effect. However, the lion began to run and could not be kept within the safe containment area established by DFG and police. The lion was shot by Santa Monica Police officers to prevent it from running through a populated area where pedestrians and cars were present.

The topic captured the attention of Patt Morrison's audience today. It's hardly a new concern. A few years back I did a story about wildlife corridors and the hopes that biodiversity and wildlife advocates had to keep the corridors open and prevent ranging animals from being stuck on "islands." (For that matter, more than a decade ago, Larry Mantle covered the issue on AirTalk, proving once again that he has spoken to everyone.)

Over the years, scientists have tracked 22 mountain lions with GPS radio collars. At their "puma page," the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area reports that one threat the cats face is "poisoning from rodenticides (rat poisons), which is likely acquired secondarily from feeding on poisoned rodents, or from feeding on other animals like coyotes that have consumed poisoned rodents." But these and other scientists say the biggest problem for the population of mountain lions here is habitat loss. 

The group I spoke to, South Coast Wildlands, continues to advocate for state and federal agencies, conservation groups, cities and landowners to create pathways along which mountain lions can roam safely between natural areas of habitat. Areas connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to, roughly, Sierra Madre are among those they've studied. The story's already made the news at the Mountain Lion Foundation, which reports: 

Isolated populations of mountain lions in Southern California mountain ranges are seriously threatened, declining rapidly due to loss of habitat, urbanization, poisoning from rodenticides (rat poisons), and freeway barriers to dispersalIf the Southern California [sic] were a State, mountain lions there might be on the endangered species list, as they are in Florida.

KCET's Zach Behrens has written the most frequently and deeply on the subject of biodiversity and wildlife corridors, and why habitat influences the size of the mountain lion population. (Here's a recent entry, actually a reprint of some information from Friends of Griffith Park, over at his excellent blog, The Back Forty.) While he was still at LAist, a story Behrens wrote broke down what's known about the mountain lion population, including their ranges and overlapping territory. 

Behrens has also written about what you should do if you meet a mountain lion, which happened to people in Glendale last December. The California Department of Fish and Game has a list of verified mountain lion attacks from the 19th century until 2007; it's shorter than you might think. 

With a dwindling population, mountain lions find fewer mating options. Maybe you're thinking that's not bad. But as the National Parks Service states, low genetic diversity exponentially affects the challenge of mountain lion survival:"The long-term survival of a mountain lion population here depends on their ability to move between regions to maintain genetic diversity and overall population health."