Mountain lions (also called cougars or pumas) are solitary animals found throughout the state of California. About half of the state is suitable lion habitat (shown in red in the map below) and they can generally be found wherever deer, their primary prey, are found. Mountain lions roam across nearly all parts of the Los Padres National Forest and portions of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, but their exact numbers are unknown.
Mountain lions are slender and agile cats. Adults usually stand a little over 2 feet tall at the shoulders, and can be between 5 and 9 feet long from nose to tail. They have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family, a physique that allows it great leaping ability – a reported 18 feet vertical! Coloring is plain, typically tawny, with lighter patches on the under body including the jaws, chin, and throat. Like domestic cats, they vocalize in low-pitched hisses, growls, and purrs. Mountain lions are obligate carnivores, meaning they feed only on meat.
Female mountain lions average one litter (typically two to three cubs) every two to three years throughout their reproductive life. Parenting is a mom-only responsibility; female mountain lions are known to be fiercely protective of their cubs, and have successfully fought off animals as large as grizzly bears in their defense. Born blind, cubs are completely dependent on their mother and begin to be weaned at around three months of age. As they grow, they start field trips from the den, first visiting kill sites, and after six months beginning to hunt small prey on their own. Young adults leave their mother to attempt to establish their own territory at around two years of age and sometimes earlier; males tend to leave sooner. Life expectancy in the wild averages 8 to 10 years.
Mountain lions require large blocks of intact habitat to survive. The average home range of a mountain lion varies from 36 square miles for adult females, to more than 140 square miles for adult males.
Lions in the Los Padres National Forest
During a drought cycle in the mid-1970s, the Los Padres National Forest was documented to have one of the highest densities of mountain lions reported within the state. The mountain lion is a Management Indicator Species (MIS) for the Los Padres National Forest. MIS are species whose population or habitat trends are believed to indicate the effects of management activities and to serve as a focus for monitoring. The mountain lion is one of 12 MIS for the Los Padres, serving as a bellwether for the effects of habitat fragmentation (other MIS include the bigcone Douglas-fir, California spotted owl, arroyo toad, and valley oak).
The statewide population is estimated at 6,000 lions, but the number of lions in the Los Padres National Forest is unknown. But the Los Padres does have vast tracts of unfragmented wilderness habitat that are ideal for supporting mountain lion populations. No surveys have been conducted either state-wide or regionally, so scientists use indicators (such as depredation, attacks on people, and predation on prey populations) to estimate lion densities. Based on this data, the California Department of Fish and Game estimates that lion populations in the state peaked in 1996, then decreased somewhat, and have remained stable for the past several years.
In our region, researchers with the National Park Service are currently tracking mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and adjacent mountain ranges to determine movements and landscape connectivity. The Forest Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife are studying the bighorn sheep population and mountain lion predation in the San Gabriel Mountains. Also, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are planning to radio-collar additional mountain lions in the San Gabriel Mountains in support of both these projects.
With the passage of the California Wildlife Protection Act in 1990, mountain lions became a Specially Protected Mammal, a formal classification that prohibits the killing of mountain lions in the state. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife can issue depredation permits that allow a lion to be killed if it attacks livestock or pets. Statewide, 148 mountain lions were killed via depredation permits in 2000, a number that has steadily declined since then to an average of 90-100 lions killed per year. Mountain lions can also be killed if they become a public safety threat, but there have been fewer than twenty verified mountain lion attacks on humans in all of California since 1890.
Mountain Lion Depredation, 2000-2016
|County||Permits Issued||Lions Killed|
|San Luis Obispo||130||72|
Source: California Department of Fish & Wildlife
Of the five counties surrounding the Los Padres National Forest, San Luis Obispo County has by far the largest numbers of permits issued and lions killed. In fact, SLO County ranks 7th out of 59 counties in California for the number of lion depredation permits issued, and is also the 7th highest county for the number of lions killed. All counties with higher permit/kill rankings are in northern California, meaning that lions in SLO County have the highest rate of being killed compared with all other counties south of the San Francisco Bay area. In 2015, 11 lions were killed in SLO County, second only to El Dorado County east of Sacramento. When asked, state wildlife officials could not point to any particular reason why SLO County is such a hotbed of mountain lion depredation, though in 2016 the number of permits issued and lions killed — 4 and 2, respectively — represented a significant decrease. Time will tell whether this positive trend continues.
The biggest threat to the mountain lion in southern and central California is the isolation and fragmentation of large blocks of suitable habitat by freeways, highways and development. Maintenance and restoration of corridors between large areas of wildlands is essential to conserving populations in southern California, and thus the habitat found in the backcountry of the Los Padres is incredibly important in providing for the long-term viability of this species.
The massive fires on the forest in recent years also play an interesting role in mountain lion ecology. Large-scale wildland fires allow for vegetation conditions which may be preferred by deer, increasing the prey base for a period of time. However, wildfires also remove vegetation that serves as hiding cover for lions, making hunting conditions more difficult. In chaparral environments, mountain lions are attracted to the edges of burns where deer tended to congregate, but still it is unknown if fire actually benefits or harms mountain lion populations overall.
ForestWatch: Protecting Mountain Lions
ForestWatch is working to protect large tracts of habitat in the Los Padres National Forest that are essential for mountain lion survival. We are also working with the Forest Service to ensure that it and partner agencies, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, adequately survey for mountain lion populations on the Los Padres National Forest. Long-term population data is critical to determine whether mountain lions are being harmed by land management activities and habitat fragmentation. ForestWatch also monitors the issuance of depredation permits to ensure that mountain lions are not needlessly killed, and advocates working with landowners and wildlife officials to explore non-lethal alternatives so that people and wildlife can co-exist.