New study tracks mountain lion paths

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Like humans who have freeways and bike paths, wild animals in the Southland also benefit from clear paths from Point A to Point B. KPCC's Molly Peterson has more about a new study that tracks the ways mountain lions get around.

Molly Peterson: Riverside is spreading toward San Diego; urban Orange County creeps ever eastward. Everyone knows this. Scott Morrison, a conservation biologist for the Nature Conservancy, believes mountain lions know it too.

Four years ago he collared three of them with GPS trackers. One of the big cats spent several days along Highway 91, but it didn't cross into similar territory in Chino Hills State Park, to the north.

Scott Morrison: It's hard to know what was going on in the lion's head at the time but it sure looked like the lion was trying to find a way out of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Peterson: Mountain lions travel widely to get food; they need territory for that. Morrison and co-author Walter Boyce, at UC Davis's Wildlife Health Center, writes that other animals share the same worry.

Morrison: It makes you wonder how difficult it would be to get into the Santa Ana Mountains.

Peterson: Morrison's team followed three mountain lions, two cubs and a mother. A poacher shot one cub that was near Camp Pendleton. The mother lion died after that. Morrison says rapid growth in the area can explain plenty about how people and wild animals interact.

Morrison: In part because the development pressure is so extreme in Southern California you see a lot of the effects of human land uses playing out on wildlife communities in real time. Peterson: His observations are more anecdotal than analytical; three lions constitute a very small sample. But conservation scientists believe the Southland is a hotspot for biodiversity. Morrison says city and county planners have tried to take this into account.

Morrison: The way this has been done in the past is by identifying the places that are most important for connectivity and protecting those individual parcels one at a time.

Peterson: But with a population projected to grow by 18 million people in the next 15 years, Morrison says that conserving land piece-by-piece might not happen fast enough to serve science's goal.

Morrison: Plants and animals need to move around in order to survive and they especially need room to move around as our climates change. What we need to do is protect the pathways that these species will use to adapt to new climate regimes and to just meet their daily survivorship needs.

Peterson: As an example, Morrison points to the one mountain lion whose tracking collar is still active. That lion still appears to be confined to the Santa Ana Mountains.