Researchers tracked mountain lions when parks closed last spring. Here's what they found
Mountain lions living around Los Angeles and Ventura counties mostly stuck to parks and open space even when people stayed home at the height of California’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
Instead of expanding their range or moving into cities, cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains and nearby hills used smaller spaces and moved shorter distances. That’s according to a study published this month in a scientific journal “Ecological Solutions and Evidence.”
The animals did so by moving closer to trails and developed areas as people stayed home.
“Mountain lions are elusive and remarkably good at staying out of sight of humans,” said John Benson, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Nebraska.
Without having to dodge humans or the trails where they tend to show up, the mountain lions were able to move more efficiently, he said. They still rarely entered urban areas.
The National Park Service has studied the small, isolated population living in the region since 2002 to determine how it survives in the increasingly urban area.
Studies have shown the mountain lions fenced in by highways and development face steep odds. The inability to get into or out of the area has led to inbreeding, low genetic diversity and lions killing each other.
As parks and trails closed last spring because of the pandemic, Benson and researchers at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area had a short time when human activity significantly decreased. They tracked the cougars for 43 days from late March to early May 2020, getting location updates from animals’ GPS-equipped collars to see if the animals changed routines.
In theory, animals should use the smallest area possible to get food and what they need to survive, Benson said. That's what he and the researchers found during the slowdown.
Some changes happened quickly as the animals adapted to the new environment. But some of their behavior stayed the same.
Even with less traffic, freeways and major roads still appeared to be a barrier for the mountain lions. The study found no evidence of more frequent crossings, researchers said.
Experts say that connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to other natural areas is the key to lowering the chance the mountain lions will go extinct. Vehicle strikes are one of the leading causes of death for the animals.
The mountain lions may have needed more than just a short time with less traffic to start to feel more comfortable crossing roads, Benson said. But also the traffic didn't grind to a halt even during the stay-at-home order.
“The traffic was reduced certainly, but there was still plenty of use occurring, and the barrier effect doesn’t just disappear,” said Seth Riley, a National Park Service biologist who has studied the Santa Monica Mountains population for nearly 20 years.
Mountain lions living in the area likely are well aware of the danger of being hit on the road – a penalty much higher than being closer to a trail of hikers, Benson said. They may have been willing to be closer to trails but still hesitant to cross major roads and freeways usually jammed with cars and trucks.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0260.