New York, NY - An estimated 300 to 600 of California’s mountain lions – up to 15% of the state’s total population -- have been killed, injured or negatively impacted by wildfires thus far this year, according to estimates from Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.
Over 4 million acres of land have burned throughout the state during the 2020 fire season, more than twice the previous record set in 2018. The fires could have a devastating effect on the state’s wildlife, especially mountain lion or puma populations, which are already threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. Reports of orphaned and burned mountain lion kittens whose lives will now likely be spent in captivity have already made media headlines.
Panthera scientists combined mountain lion density data from previous research projects and fire perimeter maps to make habitat-specific estimates for the number of mountain lions affected by each fire. Panthera used a similar methodology to estimate that up to 600 jaguars have been negatively impacted by fires that destroyed roughly one-third of the greater Brazilian Pantanal this year. Some survivors, including a young male jaguar, have been rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
“In addition to putting mountain lions in immediate physical danger, wildfires force them to flee to unfamiliar territories where they don’t know how to find food, avoid people or navigate around dangerous highways,” said Dr. Mark Elbroch, Director of Panthera’s Puma Program. “As this year’s wildfires wreak unprecedented damage, it’s more important than ever to protect the remaining habitats of this species, which plays a critical role in helping ecosystems heal and recover from fires -- from increasing linkages in food webs to enriching soils and plant communities.”
Panthera’s Puma Program works to protect pumas -- also known as cougars or mountain lions -- in East Bay, California; western Washington; the southern Greater Yellowstone ecosystem; and the area surrounding Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Panthera’s scientists conduct novel ecological and behavioral research, as well as engage in public education to increase tolerance for the species. These efforts inform effective and sustainable mountain lion conservation in landscapes increasingly dominated by people.
In California, Panthera and partner East Bay Regional Parks District are now focusing their cooperative camera-trapping study to better document the impacts of fire on wildlife, including mountain lions, and subsequent recovery. Further north, one of Panthera’s most ambitious efforts is the Olympic Cougar Project on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where the large cats suffer from low genetic diversity. In collaboration with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Panthera is conducting a large-scale study of mountain lion dispersal and the effects of habitat fragmentation, identifying bottlenecks and blockages in wildlife corridors in order to improve connectivity and boost genetic diversity.
Based in East Bay, Panthera Puma Program Conservation Scientist, Veronica Yovovich, stated, “California’s native wildlife and plants evolved in habitats with regular fires, but these mega-fires present a whole new challenge. Climate change has made fires bigger, longer, and more frequent. Compounding fire with pressures from illegal killing, vehicle collisions, rodenticides and other toxicants, and conflict with humans, mountain lions face more threats now than ever. This is an ideal time to re-evaluate our relationship with these top carnivores, using research to design new tools for managing our interactions with them.”