They live and roam in one of the most densely populated areas of the country -- Los Angeles -- yet mountain lions studied over the past 15 years in the Santa Monica Mountains rarely venture into residential areas, thriving instead in the cover of chaparral and scrub brush, according to a National Park Service study.
But that doesn't mean they're always far from humanity, as evidenced by location data collected by GPS collars fitted on nearly 30 of the cats.
“We found that it is very rare for mountain lions to venture into neighborhoods," biologist Jeff Sikich, co-author and the lead NPS field scientist, said in a statement.
"Overall, only about 1% of locations were actually in urban areas. However, it was interesting to see that in our analysis of habitat selection, mountain lions were consistently closer to urban development than expected by chance. This could be because mule deer, their main prey, may be benefiting from being around people."
The comprehensive report on movements of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was released in the final 2021 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. The study -- titled "Big Cats in the Big City: Spatial Ecology of Mountain Lions in Greater Los Angeles" -- used more than 128,000 GPS locator signals to evaluate how the lions roam about the landscape, noting which areas they tend to frequent, and which they generally avoid.
Data indicated that lions rarely enter residential developments, even avoiding landscaped areas such as golf courses and cemeteries. They tended to prefer "shrub vegetation," notably chaparral, highlighting the importance of maintaining such environments for the lions to thrive.
“Past studies, elsewhere and even in southern California, have often focused on the importance of forested areas for the species,'' Seth Riley, lead author and wildlife branch chief at SMMNRA, said. “While riparian and oak woodlands were also selected, our results show that mountain lions, North America's largest felid, can thrive in shrublands and can persist even in intensely developed Southern California.”
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On average, adult male lions in the study had a “home range” of about 144 square miles, vastly larger than adult females, who roamed a range of about 52 square miles.
The exceptions to the rule were a male lion named P-41, who confined himself to about 21 square miles in the Verdugos, while the most famous lion in the study -- P-22 -- roams the roughly nine-square-mile, freeway- and development-enclosed environs of Griffith Park. But even those two cats limit their movements primarily to natural areas, avoiding residential developments.
The study results indicate that despite Los Angeles being vastly populated and developed area, there appears to be sufficient open space remaining for the lions to persist in the region.
However, multiple other dangers still threaten the population -- continued development, rodent poisons that can be ingested by the lions and freeways that divide and separate open space area, restricting movement of wildlife and leading to inbreeding that could endanger the lions' long-term survival.