Southern California’s mountain lions are at risk of going extinct locally in as little as 50 years, according to a new study published in the journal Ecologist Applications. The region’s two mountain lion populations are isolated from each other by urban sprawl, causing a decline in genetic diversity and high mortality rates from car collisions and wildfires.
“We can’t just sit on this issue — we’ve known about the potential issues for a long time,” T. Winston Vickers, co-author of the study and a veterinarian at the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis, told Popular Science. “The moral of the story is more animals need to get across the road.”
The scientists examined DNA from blood and tissue samples taken from the region’s big cats from the 1990s to 2016. They found that the species could soon experience inbreeding depression — the point at which genetic diversity declines so much that it impacts the survival and reproduction of animals. This is what happened to Florida panthers, which numbered fewer than 30 animals in the 1990s, Popular Science points out. Biologists ended up having to bring cougars in from Texas to mate with the Florida population to help it recover.
Even without inbreeding depression, southern California’s mountain cats still have a 16 to 29 percent chance of going extinct by 2050, the scientists concluded.
The scientists argue that establishing wildlife corridors connecting southern California’s two lion populations — located in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica Mountains — would significantly increase the species’ chances of survival.
“It’s easy to read our paper as yet another pessimistic story about wildlife threatened by human actions — and in a sense that is true,” lead author John Benson of the University of Nebraska said in a statement. “However, there is also a more optimistic message in that our model predicted that these populations can persist with relatively modest increases in landscape connectivity. If we can maintain healthy populations of mountain lions… here in greater Los Angeles, that bodes well for our ability to conserve large carnivores anywhere.”