California's mighty predator, the mountain lion, faces 'extinction vortex'

As the mountain lions of Southern California approach what some experts call an "extinction vortex," environmentalists are demanding that state officials grant the big cats protective status—a move that could potentially ban development on thousands of acres of prime real estate.

Mountain lions as a species are not threatened in California, but a petition submitted Tuesday to the state Fish and Game Commission argues that six isolated and genetically distinct cougar clans from Santa Cruz to the U.S.-Mexico border comprise a subpopulation that is threatened by extinction.

The petition, which is co-sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity and the nonprofit Mountain Lion Foundation, argues that Central and Southern California mountain lions comprise an "evolutionarily significant unit" that should be declared threatened under the state Endangered Species Act.

Recent scientific studies suggest there's an almost 1 in 4 chance that Southern California mountain lions could become extinct in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains within 50 years.

"This petition will be controversial," said Justin Dellinger, senior environmental scientist with the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It will raise a lot of eyebrows amongst developers and others who will point out that, overall, mountain lions are doing OK," he said. "But the weight of the scientific evidence suggests that in certain places they are in serious trouble. So, listing those lions as threatened is not an outlandish notion."

Tiffany Yap, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition, said time is running out for the lions.

"We've reached a critical point for mountain lions in Southern California," Yap said. "Individual lions face horrible deaths from car collisions or rat poison, while their populations become increasingly isolated and inbred in ever-shrinking islands of habitat hemmed by freeways and sprawl."

The effect of such a designation would be far reaching.

If the state Fish and Game Commission agrees, the California Department of Transportation would not be allowed to build or expand highways in core mountain lion habitat without implementing adequate measures to ensure habitat linkages and safe passage under or over them.