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  • Author: Sarah Czarnecki
  • Publication Date: November 04, 2021

People often wonder why mountain lions are so important, especially since their numbers have stopped spiraling. On the whole, the species is considered near threatened, not endangered, so some people assume the hard work is done.

Even though they’ve been enjoying a relatively stable population in some wilderness areas, it’s not safe to let off the gas on mountain lion conservation just yet. At the edges of human development, including state parks, mountain lion numbers are experiencing a serious decline. Researchers here at Felidae have been monitoring the populations in California and are actually seeing risks of local extinction in the Bay Area. If their numbers continue to decline like this, the fallout could be catastrophic to more than just the mountain lions.

Rebuilding a robust population across the country will benefit all of us - animals, plants, and yes, humans. The key is balance, and mountain lions are a huge part of maintaining and regaining that crucial equilibrium. This is especially true where humans and mountain lions coexist.

How mountain lions impact the ecosystem

To illustrate their role in the ecosystem, mountain lions are generally classified two ways: as keystone species and bellwether species.

As a keystone species, slight fluctuations in their population make a disproportionate difference in the ecosystem. In other words, a steady mountain lion population is essential. Non-keystone species are vitally important, too, but their numbers can go up and down without causing a domino effect. Not so with mountain lions. Without a healthy mountain lion population, other species become over- or under-populated, which quickly cascades into catastrophic problems. Just like removing the keystone in an archway, the decimation of a keystone species reshapes the wildlife, and may even cause a collapse.

Mountain lions’ other role is that of a bellwether. This means the wellbeing of their geographical range and behavior represents the health of the ecosystem as a whole. To put it another way, their existence depends on large swaths of healthy habitats, and those habitats depend on the lions in turn. Mountain lions have huge territories (up to 100 square miles!) and if they aren’t able to roam, their population weakens. We can essentially take the temperature of the regional environment as a whole by keeping tabs on mountain lions.

How mountain lions impact human wellbeing

People tend to forget that humans are part of the ecosystem, too. Believe it or not, we directly rely on healthy, balanced ecosystems and robust biodiversity for our own survival.

We need an ecosystem brimming with a broad range of plants and animals to support clean air, safe water, pest control, climate regulation, and healthy pollinator populations. Without any of these things, we couldn’t enjoy the wildlife, agricultural wealth, or human health we have.

One of the clearest indicators of mountain lion importance for humans, is the deer population. Deer are mountain lions’ primary prey, so when there aren’t as many lions around to eat them, their numbers skyrocket. Mountain lions prefer to eat weakened animals as prey, too. This means they do a great job of making sure the deer population consists of healthy individuals. This is one way they work as a keystone species.

And since mountain lions eat deer, vibrant predator populations actually improve agriculture. Overpopulated deer eat crops, which causes economic issues and weakens human food stability.

Deer overpopulation is more than an agricultural issue, too. We can see this very clearly in the midwest and east coast, where eastern mountain lions are functionally extinct. They just aren’t there to maintain the deer population. Compared to the west coast, these regions have higher rates of deer-related car accidents, more tick-borne diseases, and deer-related destruction of native plants. There’s an effort to reintroduce mountain lions to these states, which will hopefully put the scales back in check.

Advocating for sensitive species like mountain lions means we can work to keep the ecosystem balanced. And rebuilding their population only means a stronger, more vibrant habitat for them and other species. Including ourselves.

Why are mountain lions suffering?

While there are many reasons for the lowered mountain lion population (including hunting, poaching, and so-called predator control), habitat fragmentation remains one of the biggest issues today.

Habitat fragmentation is what happens when large areas of wilderness get divided into smaller spaces. Sometimes this happens naturally, like when there’s a catastrophic fire, but the more urgent reason is human development. Urbanization, logging, construction, and excess agricultural development all contribute to habitat fragmentation. This leaves us with pockets of habitats struggling to stay balanced as opposed to huge areas where the ecosystem can thrive.

And because mountain lions require enormous ranges to live, reproduce, and hunt, this forced isolation wreaks havoc on them. The species health deteriorates, resulting in poor genetic diversity, birth defects, and reduced breeding. This applies to all species at risk of habitat fragmentation, but because of their extensive territories, mountain lions are especially sensitive.

Habitat fragmentation translates to the loss of many species, especially apex predators. When we see bellwether species like mountain lions being affected by habitat fragmentation, we know it’s time to do something about it.

So we do our best to get their populations healthy again.

Conservation efforts, especially those that strive to protect the ecosystem as a whole, help save this and other dependent species from extinction. Today, there are between 20,000-40,000 mountain lions living in 15 western states and a small pocket in Florida. We hope to bring up that population to a more manageable, balanced number and improve the wellbeing of the environment.

There are lots of ways to help support mountain lions. Felidae Conservation Fund focuses on outreach, education, research, and conservation efforts to help these and other big cats. Learning to live with mountain lions at the urban edge and managing livestock near mountain lion ranges help us coexist with this vital species. Another promising technique is building wildlife crossings, which help combat habitat fragmentation and reduce vehicular accidents.

Although they’re among the largest predators in North America, mountain lions definitely don’t want anything to do with humans. They work hard to stay hidden, working behind the scenes in giving us a thriving ecosystem. Felidae and the Bay Area Puma Project work to educate the public about mountain lions, soothe the unnecessary fear of these beautiful creatures, and clear up misunderstandings about these apex predators.

Supporting these essential predators and their habitats, especially where the human and lion territories overlap, helps keep mountain lions benefitting us all.

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