Big cats deserve protective status — that's the message behind a recently submitted petition to California’s Fish and Game Commission. It relies on a study from earlier this year that Southern California lions could go extinct in just over a decade.
"These populations are struggling with high levels of inbreeding and low levels of genetic diversity, which is being caused by extreme levels of isolation from roads and development kind of closing them in,” said Tiffany Yap, the petition’s lead author and a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The groups are seeking threatened or endangered species status for between 250 and 500 adult mountain lions across Southern California and the Central Coast. The cougars live in the Eastern Peninsular Range, Santa Ana Mountains, San Bernardino Mountains, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains, and north along the coast to the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Without a clear legal mandate to protect mountain lions from the threats that are killing them and hemming them in on all sides, these iconic wild cats will soon be gone from Southern California,” Yap said.
Activists also say that losing lions could also harm people. On the East Coast, where cougars are extinct, deer populations are out of control, resulting in overgrazing, more vehicle-deer collisions and increased tick-borne illnesses, said Lynn Cullens with the Mountain Lion Foundation.
“If we don't take these steps, mountain lions will slowly or even quickly begin to disappear,” Cullens said. “We are already seeing signs of inbreeding such as kinked tails and crossed eyes.
If the state decides to list the cougars, it could stop highways from being built or expanded within their habitat, unless there are ways for the animals to cross them.
Cullens says it’s hard for young lions to meander through the homes that dot the hillsides of Southern California.
“They can’t cross eight-lane freeways to find a territory and establish a home,” Cullens said.
“Yet the lion populations in isolated mountain ranges depend on the genes of these young immigrants to avoid extinction.”
It also may limit development. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has three months to make a recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission on the issues. A commission decision could be made at a public hearing by years end. CDFW did not immediately respond for comment on the petition.