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What Tracking Mountain Lions Taught Me About Adaptability

When I was sixteen, I trekked for miles up untraversed trails in Sonoma County, California, in search of mountain lion dens and sites where cougars eat their prey. (Mountain lions, pumas, panthers, and cougars are all names used for this same species.) As an intern for the Living with Lions project, I studied how humans and top predators can coexist in shared areas.

Unfortunately, it quickly became evident to me that humans don’t share well.

A mountain lion in a tree
A mountain lion lounging in a cottonwood tree during the heat of the day in Colorado. Photo: Justin Shoemaker/USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Creative Commons

Throughout that summer in Sonoma, I was led by my mentor, Alex Hettena, who had a rattail braid, loose-fitting hiking pants, and the answer to any question related to mountain lions. “Now we can go to the sites that are too dangerous to go to alone,” she said as she welcomed me on my first day.

That day, I saw a half-eaten fawn—a mountain lion “snack” that would be finished later. I crawled behind Alex through manzanita tunnels and overgrown poison oak, following her straight up crumbling mountain sides and across dry river beds. I was exhilarated. And exhausted.

I learned then about the ongoing battle over land in California, as residents were sprawling away from cities and into rural areas that often overlap with mountain lion territories. At the same time, changing weather conditions were driving mountain lion prey to greener urban pastures, leading these animals into urban centers. This has resulted in increased confrontations between humans and cougars.

As Californians build more houses and construct new highways, they are shrinking mountain lion territory, leaving cougars with a restricted menu and occasionally drives them to eat a sheep or dog in order to survive. This often prompts landowners to file depredation permits, which grant them the right to kill a mountain lion if the animal threatens human life or property.

The most difficult part of my job was convincing landowners not to file depredation permits. Human attacks on mountain lions have been soaring to over 100 deaths per year from depredation files and 100 deaths per year from accidental vehicle collisions in California alone. This is a substantial hit to the moderately small population of 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions residing in California.

In stark contrast, there is a statewide total of six human fatalities from mountain lion attacks since 1890. This is evidence that humans are the true predators in California.

The sites Alex and I visited were often on private land, which led us to countless countryside homes to ask if we could access landowners’ backyards.

Oftentimes, landowners would offer to come with us. Perhaps for the personal thrill, but more often than not, they feared for the safety of two young women in search of mountain lions in the backcountry.

Smiling girl in baseball cap and pink sweater holds a small animal skull
Amy Stanfield holding a skull from a California mountain lion cub she found while tracking its mother. Few mountain lions survive past five years old in areas where they are hunted for sport. Photo: Amy Stanfield

I remember a man who asked to join us. He tied the sun-crisped laces of his worn leather boots and strapped a pistol onto his belt. I could sense the stoicism he felt in his self-assigned role as the protector of our group, but what I also saw under his heroic facade was fear. I noticed his unease toward these large creatures roaming his backyard—or should I say the lions’ backyard?

As we walked in the forest, he mumbled, “Sometimes I just want to shoot the dang thing.”

I stopped in my tracks then, as all of the interactions with the landowners I’d met came rushing back to me. I thought about how upsetting the loss of companionship or a source of livelihood from the death of a dog or cattle could be.

But I also recognized that moving deeper into nature, destroying it, and acting surprised when local wildlife bites back was a tired scene. Mountain lions are essential to the ecosystem, and if we choose to expand our habitats, it is also our responsibility to understand, protect, and learn to live with them—rather than choosing to live in fear.

I know that the idea of a mountain lion living in your backyard can be scary. However, the more we learn about them, the less scary they become. Research shows that mountain lions have successfully adapted to city life. They are opportunistic creatures—generalists that can essentially eat anything and live anywhere. But they remain uninterested in preying on humans.

Instead, these big cats maintain biodiversity by keeping deer and elk populations in check, which allows vegetation to prosper, bringing in vibrant life. The influx of animals increases genetic diversity, which allows species to adapt to environmental changes. Insects decompose mountain lion prey, which liberates nutrients in the soil and provides stability for plant growth and improved water quality.

Still, the adaptability of mountain lions is not widely appreciated and fear prevents people from getting to know these creatures and learning from them.

If mountain lions can keep up in a rapidly changing environment, what’s stopping humans from doing the same?

We are living beyond our environmental limits. The common trend of humans fleeing from urban centers to rural areas in search of natural amenities and idealized lifestyles has its drawbacks. This leads to higher emissions from road transportation, loss of open space, and negative consequences for wildlife.

Removing mountain lions through depredation permits is not effective. When doing so, there is high potential for multiple younger male lions to move into unfamiliar territory and cause more harm. It also creates an imbalance in our fragile ecosystem by limiting keystone predators, which are species that dramatically impact entire ecosystems.

To maintain a healthy environment and promote biodiversity, Californians need to learn to share their land.

Amy Stanfield is a graduate student in the
M.S. in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Claudia Dreifus`
1 year ago

Congrats, Amy, wonderful piece.

Olivia C
Olivia C
1 year ago

How interesting!
If mountain lion cubs don’t survive in areas where hunting them is allowed… I’m surprised they aren’t protected by size/age limitation laws, like deer and even some fish species are. OR is that infant mortality more a result of mothers being killed and cubs being left on their own?