Although Native Americans maintained a respectful and reverent relationship with pumas in the distant past, the arrival of European settlers to the Western Hemisphere brought an attitude of fear and violence toward pumas. In the Eastern US, bounties in many states led to the annihilation of pumas from the eastern half of North America by the early 1900's.
In California, diminishing puma populations became protected in the 1970's, and the puma has since been designated a specially protected mammal. California is the only state with a resident puma population that does not allow sport hunting. Its overall puma population is currently thought to be stable, however local populations are still at risk from a variety of human activities...
Human Development -> Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Human development is encroaching into puma habitat at an alarming rate, and is the driving force behind an ongoing rise in human-puma conflict. The direct effect of this rapid development is the loss and fragmentation of large tracts of puma habitat, and this leads to: increased sightings and encounters, increases in puma depredation due to pet and livestock killing, and increases in road kill.
More than any other land mammal, pumas require extremely large and contiguous territories for their home ranges. As human development destroys and/or fragments their previous habitat, pumas are facing a variety of new challenges and are struggling to adapt.
In some cases, such as in the Santa Cruz Mountains where BAPP's first field study is taking place, entire ecosystems are at risk of becoming cut off and turning into a 'habitat island.' When this happens, the genetic diversity of the puma population gives way to inbreeding, and the health of the pumas, as well as the ecosystem they help to balance and manage, will inevitably decline.
In many other cases, habitat loss and fragmentation are forcing pumas to unwillingly interact more with humans. Pumas are solitary and secretive by nature, and though these interactions are far less frequent than they otherwise might be, they are still significant and getting worse. This trend is threatening both the health and stability of our local puma populations, as well as the sense of comfort and safety desired by people living in or near puma habitat.
Depredation: 100/year in California
According to state law, if a puma attacks a pet or livestock in California, the owner can acquire a depredation permit to have the puma killed. In recent years the number of permits issued has increased to about 100 per year. This number is higher than the sport hunting quotas in some states that allow puma hunting.
In order to help reduce this number, one of BAPP's goals is to provide better education for pet and livestock owners living at the interface between the developed and natural worlds. Something as simple as keeping pets in at night, or using proper fencing or guard dogs for livestock, can reduce or eliminate incidents such as these, which protects both human-owned and wild animals, reduces community tensions, and minimizes the conflict between humans and the natural world.
Road Kill: 60/year in California
One of the most dangerous forms of increased habitat fragmentation is the increasing number of roads throughout the state. When pumas cross roads to reach the habitat on the other side, there is significant danger that they will be hit by a car, which is not only dangerous for the puma but also for the human occupants of the vehicle.
To address this issue, the BAPP team is evaluating puma tracking data from the field research to locate frequent crossing points, especially on Highway 17 which is an especially dangerous road for pumas. Caltrans is now taking a pro-active approach to retrofitting roads with wildlife underpasses, and they have requested the data from the project as it becomes available to help guide their road development activities.
Public Safety: 3/year in California
In separate incidents in Berkeley and Redwood City during the past year, pumas wandered into highly developed areas and were deemed a public safety threat. In each case, their killing by law enforcement officials triggered significant media coverage and public outcry, on both sides of the issue.
While these kinds of incidents are dramatic and frame the issue of human-puma conflict in the starkest of terms, they are also relatively rare and do not constitute a significant source of puma mortality in California. If anything, the degree to which pumas manage to avoid the crosshairs of police firearms indicates their strong desire to avoid humans and human-developed areas.
Puma Sightings: 85-90% mistaken identity!
According to the California Department of Fish and Game, almost nine out of every ten reported puma sightings are not actually pumas. They are dogs, coyotes, bobcats, racoons, deer....even large house cats.
Though the increase in human-puma conflict is real and needs to be addressed, it's important to keep in persective that rather than challenging humans over the loss of their territory, pumas are quietly adapting to the encroachment and destruction of their habitat by adjusting their patterns, and are successfully avoiding conflicts with humans far more than we realize.