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Plants and AnimalsWhat Tracking Mountain Lions Taught Me About Adaptability

What Tracking Mountain Lions Taught Me About Adaptability

What Tracking Mountain Lions Taught Me About Adaptability

Amy Stanfield
|March 30, 2023

Once I was sixteen, I trekked for miles up untraversed trails in Sonoma County, California, in quest 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 in the course of the heat of the day in Colorado. Photo: Justin Shoemaker/USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Creative Commons

Throughout that summer in Sonoma, I used to be led by my mentor, Alex Hettena, who had a rattail braid, loose-fitting mountaineering pants, and the reply to any query related to mountain lions. “Now we are able to go to the sites which might be 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 may 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 used to be exhilarated. And exhausted.

I learned then concerning the ongoing battle over land in California, as residents were sprawling away from cities and into rural areas that always overlap with mountain lion territories. At the identical 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 construct more houses and construct latest highways, they’re shrinking mountain lion territory, leaving cougars with a restricted menu and sometimes drives them to eat a sheep or dog to be able to survive. This often prompts landowners to file depredation permits, which grant them the correct to kill a mountain lion if the animal threatens human life or property.

Essentially the most difficult a part of my job was convincing landowners to not file depredation permits. Human attacks on mountain lions have been soaring to over 100 deaths per 12 months from depredation files and 100 deaths per 12 months from accidental vehicle collisions in California alone. This can be a substantial hit to the moderately small population of 4,000 to six,000 mountain lions residing in California.

In stark contrast, there’s a statewide total of six human fatalities from mountain lion attacks since 1890. That 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 back with us. Perhaps for the non-public thrill, but as a rule, they feared for the security of two young women in quest of mountain lions within 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’re hunted for sport. Photo: Amy Stanfield

I remember a person who asked to hitch 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 because 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 within the forest, he mumbled, “Sometimes I just wish to shoot the dang thing.”

I ended in my tracks then, as all the interactions with the landowners I’d met got here rushing back to me. I thought of how upsetting the lack of companionship or a source of livelihood from the death of a dog or cattle could possibly be.

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

I do know that the thought of a mountain lion living in your backyard might be scary. Nonetheless, the more we study them, the less scary they develop into. Research shows that mountain lions have successfully adapted to city life. They’re opportunistic creatures—generalists that may essentially eat anything and live anywhere. But they continue to be tired of preying on humans.

As an alternative, 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 within the soil and provides stability for plant growth and improved water quality.

Still, the adaptability of mountain lions just isn’t widely appreciated and fear prevents people from attending to know these creatures and learning from them.

If mountain lions can sustain in a rapidly changing environment, what’s stopping humans from doing the identical?

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

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

To take care of a healthy environment and promote biodiversity, Californians have to learn to share their land.

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


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