The Felidae Conservation Fund was founded by Zara McDonald to educate the public about wild cats, and how to conserve them. She was inspired to start the organization after two different encounters with mountain lions while running long distances on park trails in northern California. What follows is an interview with her about mountain lion behavior and protection.
What is the first thing people should know about mountain lions?
The first thing people should know about mountain lions is that they’re an essential part of the ecological web. As the keystone species, they play a key role in keeping the ecosystem balanced and healthy. When they are removed from a habitat, the health of the ecosystem declines as the biodiversity falls out of balance. The next first thing people should know about mountain lions is that humans are not on their menu, and the risk of being attacked by a mountain lion is very very low. For example, you’re 150 times more likely to be killed in a car collision with a deer.
If you see a mountain lion in the wild, what should you do? What should you not do?
You should never approach a mountain lion or make it feel threatened, or get between a mother and her cubs. At the same time, you should not run away or crouch down. Stand your ground, and allow the lion an escape route. It will most likely disappear before you can be sure that you even saw a mountain lion, making you doubt your own eyes.
What threats are they facing?
The biggest threat mountain lions face is habitat fragmentation which leads to loss of contiguous habitat and connectivity corridors that connect populations for genetic diversity. In California, they also face threats from depredation permits which sanction the action of killing a cat that has killed pets or other livestock. In the remaining states where lions live, hunting is a major threat. And in all states, the risk of being killed by a car while crossing a road is a major threat. All wild felids around the world are seriously threatened by human encroachment and loss of key habitat.
How secure is their future?
Mountain lions are a threatened species. While they are not in imminent danger of extinction, there have been many local extinctions, and the territory they inhabit has been steadily shrinking over the past 150 years. If the current trends continue, they will ultimately face extinction like so many other wild cats. It is critical that we change this course now, while there is still time.
How much space do they need?
Mountain lions have vast home ranges. The home range for a female is on average 50 square miles, and can be as much as 100 square miles. For a male the range is typically 80-100 square miles and can be as much as 200 square miles. In one research study a male puma that was being GPS monitored traveled over 1000 km over a few weeks.
How large do their populations have to be so there is not inbreeding, and related genetic diseases?
The main cause of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity for mountain lions is habitat fragmentation. The mountain lion is a low density species. Therefore populations need to be spread out across large amounts of contiguous habitat to be healthy. Males will typically not share territory with other males, and will fight to the death in a territory dispute. Within a male’s home range there can be 2-3 females. Based on the size of their home ranges, this means that at full density there are only about 4-5 adult mountain lions per 100 square miles. This makes the mountain lion a ‘bellwether’ species, exhibiting the harmful effects of habitat fragmentation long before other species do.
Does the media portray them accurately, or in a sensationalistic way?
In some cases the media accurately portrays mountain lions and the challenges they face in a human-dominated landscape. In other cases, there is a more sensationalist approach that emphasizes fear and perceived danger. Felidae is working hard to send a balanced and accurate message out, and has had a great deal of success generating positive and informative stories in the media.
What is their main source of food?
Mountain lions are ‘generalist predators’ meaning they will eat anything from mouse to a moose. However in North America around 80 percent of a mountain lion’s diet consists of deer, and in South America there are animals similar to deer which also form the bulk of the mountain lion’s diet.
How often do they reproduce?
An adult female mountain lion is pregnant or raising young for 70 percent of her life. The gestation period after conception is about 90-92 days, and the young will stay with the mother for 18-24 months. A female will typically get pregnant within a year, and often significantly less, from the time her previous litter disperses. That puts the total reproduction cycle at around 2.5 to 3 years.
How can members of the public help make sure mountain lions survive?
The main thing that members of the public can do is to get informed and get involved, and to spread the word and help support conservation efforts. Felidae’s website, felidaefund.org is a great place to start. It provides a lot of information about upcoming lectures, and opportunities to volunteer, make a donation, attend an event, sign up for our mailing list, and connect to our Facebook and Twitter accounts. Also check out bapp.org to watch this exciting project build momentum, Learn about the Bay Area Puma Project and join us at an upcoming lecture in San Francisco at the Randall Museum on March 10th.
Image credit: WL Miller