Wildfires Spurred Risky Behavior in Los Angeles Mountain Lions

It has been nearly four years since the Woolsey Fire raged across Southern California, burning nearly 100,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Now new research shows human communities weren’t the only ones suffering.

An elusive population of mountain lions living in and around Los Angeles also found their habitats devastated by the fire.

The big cats were forced to adapt their behavior in dangerous ways to avoid the burn zones after the fire, the study found. They crossed main roads more frequently; invaded each other’s territories; and moved about during the day, risking encounters with humans.

The results published Thursday in the journal Current Biologysuggest another way deteriorating wildfires may threaten natural ecosystems in the western United States. They can force wildlife into closer contact with human communities and urban landscapes.

For the Mountain Lions of Los Angeles, that’s an added challenge to an already serious set of threats.

The population is small to begin with – there are probably about 100 cats in the Santa Monica mountains north of the city and maybe a dozen or so in and around urban Los Angeles. And they are threatened by growing urbanization, which is cutting up their living space into smaller and smaller parts.

Mountain lions are solitary, territorial animals. They need plenty of space to themselves, ideally in wooded areas with plenty of cover so they can track mule deer, their favorite prey. Fragmented, urbanized landscapes can support fewer people over time.

Research has shown that the small population is beginning to suffer from inbreeding. A 2016 study warned that a lack of genetic diversity could put the population at risk of extinction within 50 years.

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“That was the context when the Woolsey fire happened,” said Rachel Blakey, the lead author of the new study and a research scientist at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “We already have a population that has many barriers to spread and is exposed to many stressors.”

Scientists have been observing the city cats for years, tracking them with GPS collars. The wildfire gave them an opportunity to study how the animals responded to a major environmental disturbance. The fire turned large parts of the area into “pretty much a lunar landscape,” according to Blakey, making it unusable habitat for the cats.

The researchers found that after the fire, the mountain lions still made great efforts to avoid humans and stayed away from urban areas as much as possible. But avoiding the burned spots also posed a challenge for the cats.

Researchers found that they began to cross roads more frequently, including the area’s busy 101 freeway. They also began to dive into other cats’ territories more frequently.

The researchers have not yet determined whether these behavior changes have led to an increase in deaths. But it’s a worry. Being killed on roads is the leading cause of death among the population. And altercations with territorial adult males are another leading cause of death in adolescent male mountain lions.

The combination of urbanization and increasing wildfires could pose a growing threat to Los Angeles’ mountain lions over time. As the climate warms, stronger and more frequent fires risk altering the landscape, destroying native forests and turning them into scrubland — poor habitat for the cats.

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Mountain lions are currently listed as a “Specially Protected Species” in California while the state is conducting a review to determine if they should be listed as a threatened species. Meanwhile, construction of a new wildlife bridge across Southern California’s Highway 101 is underway. The bridge could help the mountain lions safely disperse to new areas, potentially increasing the population’s genetic diversity and addressing at least one threat to the population’s survival.

The Woolsey Fire is believed to have directly killed at least two mountain lions, the new study notes. But the aftermath of the event is a reminder that these events can have even more insidious ramifications in the long run.

“I think we need to think more about what these disruptions are doing over the longer term,” Blakey said. “Our study was only 15 months after the fire, but we have seen these ongoing behavioral changes that are causing great concern for a population already struggling to maintain resilience for the future.”

E&E News reprinted with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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