Mountain Lions Are Rarer Than We Thought

A count of the giant cats in California found thousands fewer than previously estimated
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 14, 2024 1:20 PM CST
Mountain Lions Are Rarer Than We Thought
A mountain lion known as P-22 photographed in the Griffith Park area near downtown Los Angeles.   (US National Park Service, via AP, File)

A painstaking, seven-year census of California's mountain lions has yielded some pretty surprising results. As the Los Angeles Times reports, previous estimates of their populations assessed that up to 6,000 were living in the state, but that number turns out to be fairly exaggerated—with the actual number between 3,200 and 4,500. "That old figure was just a back-of-the-envelope calculation without much data to support it," says Justin Dellinger, a biologist and leader of the California Mountain Lion Project. "The new, more accurate information we collected will be used to conserve and manage mountain lions more appropriately."

The new count comes from a coalition of state entities, universities, and nonprofit groups that produced three population estimates over seven years, funded by $2.45 million from the state. To conduct the census, they had to overcome a few challenges. Mountain lions are stealthy and travel great distances, so they're not the easiest to keep tabs on. "For some of us it might be our 10 to 20 square block area that involves our house, the gas station, the grocery store, and friends. And that's a small area," Dellinger tells Cap Radio. "But mountain lions, it's just orders of magnitude bigger than what the scale at which people live their life."

The researchers modeled population densities by tracking the animals in various ways, including GPS collars, DNA from scat samples, and trail cameras. Mountain lions—also knowns as cougars, pumas, and panthers—are not considered endangered, but the state's Fish and Game Commission has granted them protections in six regions from Santa Cruz down to the Mexican border. Dangers to the large cats are largely human-caused. Wildfires, vehicle collisions, poaching, and shrinking habitats put them at risk, with a 25% chance of extinction in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana Mountains within the next 50 years. "We look forward to getting mountain lions the protection that is clearly warranted and desperately needed," says Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. (A man enjoying a soak got nasty surprise from a cougar).

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