Mountain lions. Our relationship with them in the human-saturated habitat of southern California has many facets. There's so much I want to say, it's hard to know where to begin. Which audience to address. What belief systems to tackle. Yes, belief systems. Because much of what we know about these big cats, and nature in general, has been taught to us by people and groups whose real knowledge of biology is not experience based, nor grounded in sound, whole-ecosystem principles...or worse, comes from a place of bias that exceeds an understanding of balance.
So I'll get right to the heart of it. Maintaining viable apex predator populations cannot be achieved with land bridges alone. The habitats themselves need to be viable. They need to contain water. And they need to contain prey.
Big cats the world over have a favorite food source. Ungulates. Deer and antelope species. As long as their prey of choice is plentiful, conflicts between humans and cats remain minimal. Predation on livestock will still occur because an easy meal is an easy meal...but in an ecosystem that is rich with both prey and fresh water, big cats tend to stay wild.
So as we struggle with the dual realities of wanting to preserve our native wildlife and coexist, and also wanting to own domestic animals and go for walks and enjoy the outdoors ourselves, we need to look at the bigger picture. There are two key species in this equation of balance. The mountain lion is one of them. The other is deer.
Let's assume that a mountain lion is still able to locate and hunt deer in its habitat. If a mountain lion makes a kill once every ten days, it will be well fed. And so will the other species in the ecosystem. Bear, coyote, vulture, condor, fox, raven, bobcat, even rodents will also feast on the mountain lion kill. They will directly benefit from the mountain lion's hunting prowess.
A mountain lion, hunting deer, would take roughly 36 deer a year. So to maintain a healthy population of deer that is able to sustain a mountain lion, the deer population would need to be somewhere between 70 and 100 animals within that mountain lion's hunting territory.
Deer, which are browsers, would in turn help control the growth of foliage, maintaining the plant communities in the ecosystem. They, like all living things, would also need a clean, reliable source of water.
Deer are really a keystone species in our local open spaces and wilderness areas. And from personal observation, their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years in such places as the Angeles National Forest.
If deer are moving to the suburbs...to golf courses, for instance, where there is generally both grass and water, so too will all the other animals who are feeling the effects of drought, habitat loss, human encroachment and intense recreation activity.
We can make bridges and promote tolerance and educate Angelinos about mountain lions...but if their natural habitat can't sustain them, they will be moving into our human habitats and seeking sustenance where they find it.
Back in the 1980s (you can tell by the big hair!) our boss lobbied for the Mountain Lion Protection Act, Proposition 117. The Act was passed in 1990 and prohibited the sport hunting of mountain lions. She was also active in studies to determine the viability of building a wildlife corridor or corridors to link the open space regions than span Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. At the time it was believed that large predators had already declined beyond a salvageable population, and in thirty years would no longer exist.
No one considered the adaptability factor...that bears would move to the human side of the urban interface and stroll through grocery stores; that mountain lions would become as adept as coyotes at back yard predation. No one saw that coming.
One thing our boss did make sure of was that Proposition 117 addressed the issue of nuisance animals...cougars that, through habituation, become a threat, to domestic animals or humans. She knew that a mountain lion in Moorpark had attacked horses. And she knew that over time, mountain lions would lose their fear of dogs and humans...a fear that being hunted had instilled in them.
Animal populations respond to human behavior. Whales are perhaps the best example of this. After many species were hunted to near-extinction, when humans mostly stopped hunting whales and became interested in them for recreational experience instead, whales began tolerating human presence...even bringing their newborn calves close to whale watching boats. Animals adapt to our behaviors. They must in order to survive.
About 100 nuisance mountain lions a year are dispatched in California. These are animals that habitually prey on domestic animals or attack humans without provocation. Trying to tease the facts out of all the biased information available is difficult. It has been suggested that sport hunters took less than 100 mountain lions annually. The number of permits to take mountain lions that were killing livestock reached an all-time high in 1988, with 145 issued and 62 lions taken.
Mountain lions themselves were never endangered. But the quality of their habitat is. Vast tracts of land and bridges alone cannot support mountain lion populations.
Mountain lions need water. Mountain lions need deer. The rest of the inhabitants of these ecosystems need the predator-prey relationship of mountain lion and deer to fuel their own life cycles.
We can save all the open space and build all the bridges we like, but unless we are connecting thriving, viable natural ecosystems...unless there is water, unless there are deer...we are doing no great service to the mountain lion, or to ourselves.