Maria Fotopoulos, 9/7/2015 [Archive]

Rethinking Wildlife's Place in our Interconnected World

By Maria Fotopoulos

Recently, another majestic mountain lion lost his life in a hit and run — on a highly trafficked Southern California highway. This is the 14th mountain lion to die on L.A. area roads since a 2002 tracking study began.

Despite the fact Mountain lions in California have been classified as "specially protected mammals," the roads have nonetheless taken their toll. Southern California mountain lions have one of the lowest survival rates among any population in North America, comparable to hunted populations.

Through the tracking study of the big cats of the Santa Monica Mountains, we know the most recent victim was P-32 ("P" for puma). Remarkably, he navigated at least four freeways before he died in August, short of his second birthday, in search of a new home. The Santa Monica Mountains are 153,000 acres — the average male lion needs about 100,000 acres of natural habitat — and home to perhaps 10 adult lions, according to the National Park Service.

The big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains live essentially on an "island," since extensive urban development and some of the country's busiest highways are very real barriers to their movement. On the opposite coast, Florida panthers share a similar predicament — isolated in the southern part of the state, with as few as 100 remaining. Both populations lack genetic diversity because of their isolation.

It's not easy being an urban cat in 21st century California. Traveling to the liberal enclave of Santa Monica did not help a young cougar that came into town in 2012; he ended up shot dead outside a yoga studio, as did a cougar that wandered into Berkeley in 2010. And south of L.A., in Orange County, being hit by a moving vehicle is the No. 1 cause of mountain lion deaths, with the 241 Toll Road being particularly treacherous: 15 cougars killed in recent years.

These are harbingers for wildlife in all states.

These tragic losses bring home the urgency of designing, funding and building wildlife crossings, and ensuring that the concept is integrated into the review process for developing new roads and considered when roads are refurbished. As well, a more comprehensive working process of the environmental impact on biodiversity that involves wildlife management agencies, conservation groups, highway agencies, city and state planners, engaged citizens and developers is needed to ensure that all future infrastructure and development accommodate needs greater than those of just Homo sapiens.

In Southern California, according to urban wildlife experts, creating a safe passage for wildlife in one of the last undeveloped areas on highway 101 will provide a way to help ensure that cougars have a future in the Santa Monica Mountains. Leading the charge on this project are the Santa Monica Mountains Fund and the National Wildlife Federation.

American cougars are a national treasure to be cherished and protected, but clearly they aren't on the radar screen for enough people; it took nearly four years for the SoCal cat tracking study just to get funded.

But mountain lions were in California long before 38 million people (and counting) claimed most every part of the state; ditto the rest of the country (323 million people and counting). We have an obligation as defenders of the planet to direct more energy into doing a much better job of protecting and coexisting with our wildlife, and helping it thrive.

In an ever-growing rebuilt landscape that's suburbanized and urbanized, unique biodiversity needs our help. Failing to stabilize U.S. population at sustainable numbers will make protecting our biodiversity even more difficult, if not impossible. Thus, stabilizing and reducing human population is essential to a sustainable U.S. and all its wildlife.

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2015 Copyright Maria Fotopoulos. Maria is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (capsweb.org). Contact her at caps@capsweb.org. This column is distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

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