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By Tiffany Yap and Valentin Lopez
The lone gray wolf known as OR-93 was heading into Monterey County in March, after crossing major freeways and county lines of the Golden State, when news broke that a different iconic animal had died.
Some 300 miles away in the Santa Monica Mountains, the National Park Service announced that mountain lion P-78 had died after being struck by a vehicle. Both animals made perilous journeys crossing our state’s biggest freeways. Both faced the dangers of a fractured landscape. One didn’t survive.
Another gray wolf, OR-103, has recently entered California.
We can only imagine the luck that has been on the side of these two male wolves and the just over a dozen other known wolves that have come here from Oregon. That treacherous journey reminds us that although the wildlands of California have been chipped away by roads and development, precious open space still remains for pumas and returning wolves.
OR-93 must have seen some remarkable landscapes as he made his way south to San Luis Obispo County. In San Benito County, he roamed hills rich in biodiversity on unceded ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. His movement here speaks to this area’s importance as a connectivity corridor for other wide-ranging species, like mountain lions.
For thousands of years, Mutsun tribal members coexisted with wolves and mountain lions on these lands. But European colonialism displaced the Mutsun from their homelands and eliminated wolves. And encroaching development in the area is pushing the local puma population to the brink of extinction.
An open-pit mining operation called Sargent Quarry is being proposed for the hills of Juristac, the Tribe’s most sacred site, located in a critical wildlife corridor between the Santa Cruz and Gabilan mountains.
Such a project would further enclose the Santa Cruz puma population while destroying habitat for sensitive species like California tiger salamanders and burrowing owls. Preserving Juristac would improve these species’ chances of survival and potentially facilitate the return of other iconic species that historically occurred in the area, like wolves, Tule Elk and California condors.
But merely maintaining the remaining intact habitat is not enough. We must invest in effective wildlife crossings and habitat restoration if we want to preserve these ancestral lands and promote wildlife movement.
With encroaching development and limited ways for wildlife to safely cross over or under freeways, struggling resident species like California tiger salamanders and mountain lions could disappear from these landscapes. Such lack of connectivity could also prevent the homecoming of wolves like OR-93 and OR-103.
Improved wildlife connectivity and habitat protection is particularly needed in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains, where mountain lions are increasingly hemmed in and suffering from high levels of inbreeding while getting killed by cars, rodenticides and wildfires. This combination of threats will wipe out these populations, potentially within decades.
In April the California Fish and Game Commission extended temporary protections for Southern California and Central Coast mountain lions under the state Endangered Species Act.
Having permanent protections would ensure state agencies like Caltrans do their part to avoid placing new projects within important habitat and connectivity linkages and instead build effective wildlife crossings and other passage features that allow mountain lions and other wide-ranging animals to thrive.
What a success story it would be if by helping mountain lions proliferate in California and protecting sacred ancestral lands, we could also end up helping wolves, Tule Elk and California condors return to parts of their historical range from where they’ve disappeared.
Tiffany Yap, DEnv/PhD is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Valentin Lopez is Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.