Within the San Francisco Bay Area, millions of people live beside sprawling natural lands teeming with plants and wildlife. These open spaces offer solace, peace and a chance to connect with the natural world. But living near these natural lands also means the wild is our neighbor. A prime example is mountain lions. While living alongside these large predators may sound scary, you may be surprised to learn these creatures fear us, too. What’s more, human behavior and the cities and roadways we construct place them at grave risk. How can we create conditions that help both of us thrive?
It seems each year brings news about mountain lions found in places we’d rather not find them – in schools, under porches, in backyards. We hear stories of mountain lions attacking and killing animals we’d rather they left alone, like cats, dogs and livestock. More concerning still are close encounters with these wild cats on trails, which may end in injury to humans.
These incidents can cause real harm to families, businesses and communities. They may make us fearful of wild spaces and wild animals. We may think there are too many mountain lions, or that they’re too comfortable around people. Humans often see mountain lions and their behavior as the problem. Young mountain lions that get into trouble are relocated to zoos. Those that live and hunt in popular parks are harassed to reduce encounters with people. Mountain lions that attack livestock or people are euthanized.
It is absolutely tragic when a mountain lion injures or kills a person. Reassuringly, these incidents are exceptionally rare. The fact is that mountain lions fear humans, preferring to avoid us altogether. In the past 40+ years, California only had 22 verified mountain lion attacks on people. Research in the Santa Cruz Mountains by the Puma Project shows that mountain lions exposed to human voices abandon their hard-won kills and reduce feeding time. Interactions between people and mountain lions are often dangerous and even deadly for mountain lions themselves.
The uptick in mountain lion encounters is a symptom of broader trends in our relationship with the natural world. As we build more homes and roads and create more trails through natural areas, we lose habitat. Less habitat means mountain lions may end up in parks and near human communities in search of food, water and other resources.
Our roads and highways prevent mountain lion movement, leading to isolated mountain lion populations. This is especially concerning in habitat chokepoints – narrow, tenuous routes connecting areas of core habitat, such as our local mountain ranges. If mountain lions are unable to traverse these chokepoints and reach potential mates from adjacent populations, our lions may become genetically inbred and at risk of local extinction.
Like many predators, mountain lions are keystone species – species that are crucial to maintain our ecological communities. Loss of keystone species has cascading impacts on other species and habitats. Mountain lions act as keystone species by helping keep herbivore populations in check. Without mountain lions, the deer population could grow, leading to overgrazing, changes in vegetation communities and impacts to other species. In parts of the U.S. where mountain lions and other predators have been hunted to extinction, deer populations have exploded – resulting in forests stripped bare of the plant diversity they once had.
Mountain lions are a critical component of our local ecosystems. Ensuring their long-term persistence requires learning to live alongside them. There will always be a need to address mountain lions that behave in ways that put themselves and humans at risk. But we also need to rethink how we manage these conflicts, moving beyond a focus on individual animals and their behavior. We need to change our behavior, too, and help create conditions that facilitate coexistence.
There will always be some degree of risk when living alongside wild predators like mountain lions. Still, we also need to do our part to help ensure mountain lions can live and thrive amongst us. Learning to coexist with wild animals is necessary to ensure the long-term persistence of mountain lions and other species in our remarkable region.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more