(CN) — Nearly a year after conservation groups petitioned to extend wildlife protections to imperiled California mountain lions, a state wildlife commission voted unanimously Thursday to initiate a study to determine whether the lions should be protected under the California Endangered Species Act.
Conservation groups the Mountain Lion Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity said in a June 2019 petition the lions should be listed as threatened or endangered because they’re at risk of extinction.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated in 1984 between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions lived in the Golden State, but the agency is currently updating its population figures.
The Golden State is home to 10 genetically distinct lion populations, but wildlife advocates said in their petition six populations are in need of immediate protection.
Within the six populations, the number of adult lions is between 255 and 510 with five of the groups holding populations under 50, according to the petition.
“While Southern California and Central Coast mountain lions face a multitude of threats, the greatest challenges stem from habitat loss and fragmentation and the consequent impact on their genetic health,” the petition states. “As keystone species mountain lions help support plant recruitment in riparian areas, stabilize stream banks, and sustain healthy habitats for a myriad of aquatic and terrestrial species, including plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.”
The lion populations have also dwindled over the last few decades due to the increasing use of rat poison, being hit by vehicles, increased wildfires and highway development, the petition says.
The impact of highway construction has been so detrimental to mountain lions’ habitat that petitioners used highway markers to define the lion’s range.
Animals killed by lions also provide an important food source for foxes and the endangered California condor, the petition said, adding that lions’ extinction could explode the populations of mule deer, their primary prey.
Tiffany Yap, a biologist at the Center, said at the California Fish and Game Commission hearing Thursday that mountain lions are facing an “extinction vortex” and require immediate protections.
Yap said state officials could protect land connected to yet-to-be-built wildlife crossings under highways and reexamine regulations on rodenticides.
“Looked at in isolation, the Santa Ana and Santa Monica populations alone would be considered endangered,” Yap said.
Esther Burkett, statewide coordinator for carnivore conservation at the CDFW, told commissioners mountain lions used to occupy most of North America and are now mostly restricted to western U.S. states.
Burkett said loss of habitat and highway construction has cut off young male lions from venturing across their typical ranges.
The loss of interaction for the territorial and solitary lions has led to low genetic diversity – a precursor to extinction – among the six populations named in the petition, Burkett said.
The review of the petition also elevates advocates’ call for restoration of critical linkages for the lions, including California’s Tehachapi and Sierra Pelona Mountains, Burkett said.
The five-member commission was swayed by conservation groups and state scientists’ presentations Thursday, voting unanimously to trigger a one-year analysis on whether to grant the cougar population protections under the Act.
The process will allow scientists, ranching group representatives, wildlife advocates and others to submit additional information on impacts stemming from protecting the cougar population and its habitat.
The move also extends state law protections to the lions during the review period, commission president Eric Sklar said in the hearing Thursday.
Yap said in a statement after the vote CESA protections would benefit the big cats and their habitats.
“These ecosystem engineers face huge threats that could wipe out key populations,” Yap said. “But 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.”
At least 2,200 letters from the public were sent to the commission on this issue, according to commission staff, with most in support of granting the one-year review of the petition.
Members of the California Cattlemen’s Association said in public comments that mountain lions pose serious dangers to humans and livestock and defended their ability to apply for depredation permits to kill or capture the lions.
Commissioner Russell Burns said he was also concerned about depredation permitting but feels confident the issue can be resolved within the 12-month review process.
California state Senator Richard Bloom, D-Los Angeles, whose district encompasses the Santa Monica Mountains, spoke in support of the petition and said protections cannot come soon enough.
“These lions could disappear within our lifetimes,” Bloom said. “CESA would prioritize recovery efforts and increase conservation tools.”
Debra Chase of the Mountain Lion Foundation told commissioners only sixteen U.S. states are home to lion populations that are struggling to survive.
“When apex predators thrive, ecosystems thrive,” Chase said. “We want to tell our children how we saved the lion, not how we watched them die. You can’t undo an extinction.”