ENVIRONMENT

New Study Warns Of Extinction Threat For Southern California's Mountain Lions

They could vanish in 50 years – or be protected by "wildlife corridors," researchers say.

Two populations of mountain lions in Southern California face a significant threat of extinction if actions aren’t taken to protect their environment and safeguard animal transit routes through increasingly developed areas, a new study warns.

While the species isn’t currently in danger of statewide extinction, the big cats in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica Mountains (a total of about 42 animals) have as much as a 21 percent chance of vanishing in the next 50 years, according to the study published in the journal Ecological Applications.

The mountain lions face increasing dangers from highway accidents, as well as death by rat poison, wildfires and shooting if an animal attack pets or livestock. But the biggest danger over the long term is a dwindling genetic pool as their territories are carved up and movements blocked by roads and development, the study warns. Yet judicious changes, particularly concerning protections of travel routes, could save the animals. 

The “optimistic message” in the model presented in the study reveals that “these populations can persist with relatively modest increases in landscape connectivity,” lead author John Benson of the University of Nebraska said in a statement. “If we can maintain healthy populations of mountain lions – a species that roams widely and requires such large spaces – in greater Los Angeles, that bodes well for our ability to conserve large carnivores anywhere.

Researchers, including from the University of California at Los Angeles, UC Davis and the National Park Service, analyzed DNA samples and 15 years of data from both areas to create population viability models to predict extinction based on genetic and environmental risk factors. The “greatest long-term threat to both populations appears to be the rapid loss of genetic diversity associated with their isolation from mountain lions in surrounding areas,” the study concludes. But even a single newcomer into either group could increase chances of long-term survival, the researchers say. 

Some wildlife officials are considering trucking animals across highways so they can mate. But the study suggests a system of protected wildlife corridors would be a more efficient way to protect the cats as well as other animals.

Earlier this month, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed a groundbreaking new law protecting “wildlife corridors” and other land use restrictions to safeguard movement of the animals through the region. The wildlife passages are now part of the zoning law in the area next to Los Angeles County.

“We urgently need state-led action to build wildlife crossings and improve habitat connectivity,” J.P. Rose, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost. “Southern California’s mountain lions have out-survived American cheetahs and saber-toothed cats, but they are no match for the network of freeways and sprawl we have built through their habitat. But we can prevent their extinction by quickly investing in wildlife crossings.”

Wildlife advocates are pushing for the $60 million Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing over Highway 101 that would connect the Santa Monica Mountains to the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Corridor construction could begin as early as 2022 if money is available.