New Study Shows There Are Far Fewer Mountain Lions in California Than Previously Believed

They’re still out there. But there aren’t as many as we thought in the Golden State. Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

The Inertia

Running into a mountain lion is rare. Few people ever get to lay eyes on the elusive, apex predators. But, as a new study sheds light on their population, it turns out the chances of running into one of these majestic cats in California is much smaller than we thought. 

The study pegs the mountain lion population in California in the range of 3,200 to 4,500 individuals, down from a previous estimate of 6,000. The cats are found in nearly all regions of the state, but most abundant in the state’s northwest – Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. The Central Valley and parts of the Mojave Desert were found to have no mountain lions at all.

The study was spurred by efforts from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation to upgrade the animal’s protection status as an animal threatened by extinction. The state Fish and Game Commission is expected to make a decision on their status later this year. If designated as threatened, the implications would be vast. No highways or large-scale developments would be built or expanded in mountain lion habitats, an area that covers a third of California – a very important footnote that could come up later in a development-heavy region like the Golden State.

Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare in California. Fatal attacks are even rarer. From 1986 to 2022, 21 attacks were confirmed in the state. Just three of the attacks were fatal, with the last death occurring in 2004. 

The study, which spanned seven years and cost $2.45 million, was conducted by state and university scientists. Through GPS collars and genetic information obtained from scat, models were created to arrive at the population estimates. 

“There’s never been a study of this scale and over such a large and diverse geographical area with such a variety of habitats,” said Winston Vickers, a co-author of the study and a veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center.

While mountain lions have long caused reason for concern among outdoors enthusiasts of California and beyond, the biggest threat to dwindling mountain lion populations is us, humans. According to the LA Times, particularly in Southern California, “vehicle strikes, rat poison, inbreeding, wildfires, poaching, urban encroachment, and freeway systems are all contributing to what scientists call an ‘extinction vortex.’”


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