Bay Area Lion Research Puts Connectivity on the Map

Researchers are tracking wild cats in the Santa Cruz Mountains and getting press while they do it. They have collared 9 cats in the first year of a five-year research project. The collars will provide detailed information about when and where lions travel, whether they are using existing wildlife corridors, and how they manage to coexist with people in the urbanized region in the southern Bay Area.

Captured adult lions are fitted with a global positioning satellite (GPS) collar that provides locations in the form of GPS coordinates. Up to this point, preliminary data show that the cats prefer remote territories, but routinely skirt the edges of active neighborhoods to get from one part of their habitat to another.

"For the most part, they travel where they can be least seen," said Wilmers, assistant professor in UCSC's Department of Environmental Studies.

But no matter how secretive they are, these lions face major obstacles, including the formidable Highway 17; a major corridor connecting Santa Cruz to the greater Bay Area.This thouroughfare perfectly bisects the lion habitat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One cat was struck and presumed killed by a car on this highway in July 2008.Click here to see the full size image.

Researchers hope to identify key movement pathways that allow connected populations of lions to traverse between undeveloped montane habitats, and target them for conservation.

Development threatens to cut off movement corridors across the landscape and isolate populations to small islands of habitat where they would be doomed to die out. Without connectivity between other ranges, such as the Diablo Mountains, the smaller, isolated populations would go extinct one by one.

The research findings will inform local land use planning, allowing researchers to identify lands that need to be conserved to preserve connectivity for wildlife. This is one way of identifying important wildlife linkages- on the ground. Getting information about lion habitat use is the first step in a long process to identify key movement areas, and these researchers are well on their way.

The Bay Area Puma Project is a collaborative research effort between U.C. Santa Cruz, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Felidae Conservation Fund.