In an online hearing, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to place southern California and central coast mountain lions under the protection of the state’s Endangered Species Act while they are being considered as candidates for permanent protection under the law.
Thursday’s vote initiated a peer-reviewed study of these specific mountain lion populations, conducted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to be concluded within one year. The Commission will then host another hearing to determine whether to formally protect the mountain lions as an endangered or threatened species.
Prior to the decision, the Commission received more than 1,000 comments from residents throughout the central coast region in support of a recent determination by state wildlife officials that protection under CESA may be warranted. In addition, five state senators and assembly members signed letters of support, as well as almost 100 environmental and wildlife organizations throughout the state.
The vote also came as a response to a petition from the Center of Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation, which detailed the important effect designating mountain lions as endangered could have on the species.
“This is a historic moment for California’s big cats and rich biodiversity,” Tiffany Yap, a biologist at the Center and primary author of the petition, said in a news release. “These ecosystem engineers face huge threats that could wipe out key populations. But with state protections, we can start reversing course to save our mountain lions. Wildlife officials deserve a big round of applause for moving to protect these amazing animals.”
Genetic isolation due to roads and development threatens the health of the six puma populations included in the petition, according to the news release. Despite a more than 30-year ban on sport-hunting, some mountain lion populations have low survival rates due to high levels of human-caused mortalities. Major threats include car strikes, poisonings and sanctioned depredation kills.
Researchers with the National Park Service, UC Davis and UCLA warn that if nothing is done to protect these lions, populations in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains could go extinct within 50 years. And those in the Santa Cruz, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains are showing similar patterns.
Still, the Commission’s decision seemed to be a step in the right direction. Protection under CESA would ensure mountain lions are part of planning decisions for projects proposed in mountain lion habitat. While the listing would not necessarily block development in mountain lion habitat, it would require developers to evaluate the environmental impacts of their projects and to impose measures to reduce impacts to the animals and their habitat.
“We’re grateful to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for their efforts and proud of the commission’s leadership to protect California’s mountain lions,” Debra Chase, CEO of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said in a news release. “By advancing these mountain lion populations to candidacy, they are helping to ensure that these iconic cats inspire future generations.”