Local mountain lions have won an important reprieve. On April 16, the California Fish and Game Commission voted 5-0 to advance the candidacy of several small populations of the big cats for protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
The vote was in response to a petition requesting CESA protections for six isolated mountain lion populations in Southern California and the Central Coast.
The unanimous decision initiates a year-long review process. During that period, the cats will have full protection under the Act. No depredation permits, like the one used to kill mountain lion P-56 in January, can be authorized during the candidacy period.
P-56’s death at the hands of a hobby rancher in Camarillo resulted in a major push to get the local population of mountain lions listed under CESA. P-56 was one of just two collared male mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, part of the National Park Service radio tracking study.
Sport hunting of mountain lions has been banned for more than 30 years, but the big cats have become increasingly vulnerable due to genetic isolation caused by freeway barriers, car strikes, rodenticide poisoning, poaching, and depredation permits.
At its February meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission found that increased protections may be warranted. The April meeting, conducted remotely via phone and internet, confirmed that finding.
During the meeting, the commission heard from dozens of state and local officials, wildlife and conservation organizations and concerned citizens all advocating for endangered species status for mountain lions.
Token opposition came from a handful of lobbyists for the cattle, farming, and real estate development industries, but the vast majority of the speakers were there to support protecting the cats.
“CESA protections cannot come soon enough,” Assemblymember Richard Bloom told the commission. [The mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains] could disappear within our lifetime.”
“We can live as modern people and still leave room for nature. Your action today is urgently needed,” State Senator Henry Stern added. “Nature will not wait.”
Activist Judie Mancuso, the founder of Social Compassion in Legislation, told the commission that the three strikes law that enabled the killing of P-56 has been a debacle. “We need to draw the line and protect these animals,” she said.
Poison Free Malibu co-founder Joel Schulman explained that the CESA listing would help give communities with populations of at-risk mountain lions more control over the use of toxic rodenticides that are a major threat to the cats and many other wildlife species. “This CESA listing is a great solution,” he said. “It will give us local ability to protect mountain lions from rodenticides.”
Local activist Julie Newsome reminded the commission that time is running out for the mountain lions and that extinction cannot be reversed. “Our California State flag is emblazoned with a grizzly bear, now extinct in our state,” she said. “My hope is that the mountain lions won’t suffer the same fate.”
“We can do this,” Fish and Game Commission President Eric Sklar said, offering to meet directly with the stakeholder groups that expressed concerns. “We’ve got over 300 animals and plants on the CESA list,” he said. “We have the sixth biggest economy in the world. We have more biodiversity in this state than in any other state in the union. We’ve dealt with the dynamics of the tricolored blackbird in the dairy industry, owls in the timber industry….We can do this.”
After the unanimous vote, Tiffany Yap, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, and primary author of the petition said, “This is a historic moment for California’s big cats and rich biodiversity. 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.”
CESA listing would give state agencies a legal mandate to protect mountain lions, which could include building wildlife crossings over existing freeways; re-evaluating the use of deadly rat poisons in mountain lion habitat; and the development and implementation of a mountain lion recovery plan to help facilitate coexistence.