California boasts some of the most spectacular wildlife in the country. As a result, a lot of effort goes into making sure that plant and animal species are preserved for future generations, which is especially true for creatures that are endangered or at risk of extinction. Mammals like the Gray wolf and the Riparian brush rabbit are listed as endangered by the state. But what about the majestic mountain lions? Are they endangered in California?
Mountain lions in California are not classified as endangered. However, they do receive some protections under the law that restricts hunting to ensure that the population remains healthy. In addition, there have been recent efforts to upgrade their protection status.
Spotting a mountain lion in the wild is unlikely. However, you should take some time to learn about them, especially if you plan to do some hiking, biking, or camping. Continue reading for more information about these big cats, their protection status, and how to avoid a potential encounter or attack.
California Mountain Lions Endangered, Threatened, or Protected?
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to protecting the diversity of species in the state. And that includes protecting large predators, which are vital to the survival of the food chain.
Mountain lions, which are also known by many names, including cougar, puma, catamount, and panther, are among the fiercest of these predators.
Do mountain lions receive any special protections put in place by the state? What classifications of protections are there? And what do they mean?
There are three main classifications that can be assigned to animals to ensure that their populations remain healthy and they are:
- Endangered – Endangered status means that the animal is on the brink of extinction. Without significant intervention, the species could disappear forever.
- Threatened – This status means that the animal is highly likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
- Protected – A protected species is one that is simply protected by laws from being killed or harmed. However, this status doesn’t mean the population is at risk.
A great example of this is the Bald Eagle. Despite having a stable population, their importance as a patriotic symbol of the United States has encouraged their continued protection.
Currently, mountain lions are protected from being hunted. However, the Fish and Game Commission has been petitioned to list mountain lions as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). This petition is currently under review and gives mountain lions CESA protection until the review is complete.
The total number of mountain lions found in California is estimated to be between 2,000 and 6,000. While habitat loss has impacted the species, conservation efforts have offset much of this impact.
The Department of Wildlife has found that the mountain lion populations across the state have remained relatively stable in recent years. Mountain lions can breed all year long. Females typically give birth every two years to a litter of one to six cubs.
Where Can Mountain Lions be Found?
Mountain lions can be found throughout most of the State of California. In fact, mountain lions can be found on about 50 percent of the land of the state. Mountain lions typically avoid heavily developed urban areas like San Francisco or Los Angeles, the Central Valley, and the desert region. However, they have been known to wander into metropolitan areas from time to time.
In May of 2021, reports of a mountain lion roaming San Francisco neighborhoods spread fear throughout the city. However, it took two days until the lion was captured and transferred to the Oakland Zoo for rehabilitation, then being released back into the wild.
What Habitats do California Mountain Lions Prefer?
Mountain lions are very versatile mammals and enjoy a wide range of habitats, from deserts to coastal forests. Most mountain lions live in elevations that are between sea level and about 10,000 feet.
Mountain lions tend to have the highest populations in areas where deer are plentiful. Their territory can cover up to 100 square miles.
They like areas with tall grass, scrub brush, forests, caves, and similar habitats. Mountain lions are wary and tend to remain hidden.
What do Mountain Lions Eat?
Deer is the primary food source for mountain lions. In California, there are six different subspecies of deer. In addition to deer, mountain lions also eat coyotes, raccoons, elk, and sometimes porcupines.
California deer population estimates say that there are between 460,000 to 470,000 deer, so deer are very plentiful in the Golden State, which leaves no lack of prey for mountain lions.
Mountain lions usually hunt at night between dusk and dawn. On average, a mountain lion will kill and eat one deer a week. They have been known to hide their prey under a pile of branches or leaves to dine for several days.
Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: A mountain lion can leap about 16 feet into the air and 20 feet horizontally.
If you happen to find an animal carcass while hiking in California, it’s best to leave the area immediately as it could be the indication of a nearby mountain lion.
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Do Mountain Lions Attack People?
Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare, but they do happen from time to time. According to the California Department of Wildlife, a human is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning.
Since 1890, there have been only six fatalities from mountain lions. For comparison, there have been nine fatalities from sharks throughout California history.
It’s important to understand that mountain lions don’t typically hunt humans intentionally. In most cases, an attack was caused by an instinctive response.
Mountain lions are territorial, and they are often competing with other mountain lions to protect their hunting grounds. Therefore, a human could be seen as a threat to their territory and could lead to an attack.
Mountain lions also have an instinct to chase prey. People who are trail running or mountain biking could be confused for fleeing prey.
If you happen to meet up with a mountain lion, don’t run. Instead, stand your ground and make a lot of noise by shouting and making eye contact. Mountain lions will typically only attack weak prey.
Grab something that you can use as a weapon, such as sticks or rocks. This action could force the mountain lion to think twice about engaging. Don’t crouch, as this could make you look small and vulnerable. Keep pets, and small children close and avoid hiking or biking alone if possible.
Are Mountain Lions Afraid of Dogs?
Dogs can actually attract mountain lions. The reason for this is their size. In most cases, a mountain lion is larger than a dog which makes them easy prey. When out hiking in mountain lion country, keep your dog leashed and close to you at all times.
One thing to pay attention to is that dogs have better senses of smell and hearing than humans. They can often sense a mountain lion before you can. If your dog begins barking randomly or acting strange, this could be an indication of a nearby mountain lion.
Speaking of dogs, interestingly, mountain lion prints are very similar to that of a dog. The best means to tell the difference between them is to look for toenail marks that dogs leave and mountain lions do not. Their pad also has a distinctive “M” shape.
When did Mountain Lion Hunting End in California?
The California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990 (Proposition 117) outlawed the hunting and owning of mountain lions. The only exception is people who can prove that they had possession of live mountain lions or their parts (such as hides) before the 1990 law went into effect.
Following the 1990 hunting ban, California law continued to issue permits to kill mountain lions only if they showed a pattern of preying upon domestic livestock or pets. Depredation permits are issued with strict permit time lengths and area limits.
Violations of the protection law are considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison with up to a $10,000 fine.
Currently, the most significant human threat is vehicle accidents which kill about 100 mountain lions each year.
Keep Safe When Visiting Mountain Lion Country
Encountering a mountain lion is extremely unlikely. Even in the most densely populated mountain lion areas, there are no more than a few mountain lions per 100 square miles.
When exploring California’s incredible natural spaces, stay alert and avoid any behavior that could attract one of these territorial big cats. However, if you want to see one up close, there are plenty of opportunities to do so at one of California’s great zoos.