Southern California wildfires are squeezing the region’s mountain lion population into smaller hunting spaces and pushing them toward increased run-ins with the human world, a joint study between UCLA and the National Park Service found.
The study found that mountain lions are more likely to experience risky or fatal encounters after fires destroy their habitats.
For some, the risk is more conflict with rival mountain lions as they seek new territory. Others flee the flames only to run up against human-built infrastructure. In some cases, those journeys end up deadly for the big cats.
The study looked specifically at the aftermath of the 2018 Woolsey Fire which burned almost 100,000 acres, the National Park Service reported.
Researchers found that one mountain lion, P-61, was struck and killed by a vehicle while trying to cross the 405 freeway. The mountain lion was returning to his habitat after encountering a rival mountain lion in another area.
The study stated that the cougar, who was being tracked with a collar device, was the first recorded to cross a major freeway before his death.
Researchers also found that wildfires change how mountain lions hunt for prey.
The animals rely on the element of surprise to catch their prey but have difficulty concealing themselves in areas where vegetation has burned. Since they aren’t able to camouflage themselves often, the study found that mountain lions were spotted more during the day. The animals were forced to hunt while the sun was still up to catch prey, which is unusual for nocturnal animals.
Rachel Blakey, the lead author for the study, predicts that the smaller mountain lion populations across the Golden State deal with similar issues to their counterparts in the Southern California region.
Even as mountain lions were forced into more interactions with humans, researchers stress that they are incredibly scared of humans. Blakey said they will do whatever they can to avoid human contact.
“They rather run across a 10-lane freeway than share a space with humans,” Blakey said. “They were taking risks in all directions except hanging out with us.”
Blakey acknowledged that people might be scared of seeing a mountain lion, but hopefully, knowing how afraid they are of humans can ease some nerves.
A new wildlife crossing is being built over the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills in Los Angeles County to help traveling animals cross the dangerous roadway.
Considered the world’s largest wildlife crossing, the bridge will be 200-feet long and stretch over 10 lanes of the freeway.
The 101 Freeway is the link between many species’ habitats and Blakey believes that the crossing will be a positive for many animals.
Before the 2018 Woolsey Fire, Blakey said, researchers found that mountain lions would have crossed the 101 Freeway about once every two years, but 15 months after the fire, the data showed that mountain lions were more likely to cross the highway once every four months.
“I think the wildlife crossing is really exciting,” Blakey said. “This is going to be a really smart and scientifically informed wildlife crossing that is going to help multiple species.”