At its April 15–16 meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission accepted for consideration a petition to list the Southern California/Central California Coast evolutionary significant unit (ESU) of mountain lion (Puma concolor) as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). This decision by the Fish and Game Commission will have practice implications for environmental professionals working in Southern and Central California.
The mountain lion ESU considered for listing is made up of six subpopulations, which range from San Diego County and Imperial County in the south to the San Francisco Bay Area in the north. These subpopulations are the Eastern Peninsular Range subpopulation, Santa Ana Mountains subpopulation, San Gabriel/San Bernardino Mountains subpopulation, Santa Monica Mountains subpopulation, Santa Cruz Mountains subpopulation, and Central Coast Central subpopulation. The Southern California/Central California Coast ESU of mountain lion will remain a candidate species until the Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Office of Administrative Law take additional administrative to complete the listing review process.
Background on Threats
Mountain lions in the Southern California/Central Coast ESU face several significant threats, including habitat fragmentation resulting from heavy urbanization, vehicle strikes, exposure to rodenticides, and disease. Mountain lion populations in the Sierra Nevada, an area characterized by large expanses of wilderness and minimal urban development, are generally healthy, large, and genetically diverse (Dellinger et al. 2019; Gustafson et al. 2019). Conversely, populations in Southern California, where urban development and large highways are abundant, are far less diverse, with some populations (e.g., the Santa Ana Mountains population) exhibiting a high degree of inbreeding leading to extremely low genetic diversity (Dellinger et al. 2019; Gustafson et al. 2019). Wildlife populations with low genetic diversity are typically at greater risk for disease and reduced reproductive fitness, which may lead to extinction.
Current Planning Efforts
Efforts to improve the habitat connectivity in the Southern California region are underway, including the Ventura County Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor project. Completed in March 2019 with adoption by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, this project included development of regulations and revisions to zoning ordinances and general plan policies to address habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from urban growth. Currently, Ascent Environmental is assisting Ventura County with its 2040 General Plan Update environmental impact report. These efforts, and other similar efforts, will incorporate changes from the Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor project and benefit mountain lions in the Southern California/Central Coast ESU
Process for Listing under the California Endangered Species Act
Petition to List and CDFW Evaluation. The process begins with submittal of a petition to the Commission and evaluation of the petition by CDFW.
Designation of Candidacy and One-Year Status Review. Based on the CDFW evaluation report and other information, the Commission makes a finding on whether the species’ listing may be warranted. If the finding is that listing the species may be warranted, the Commission designates it as a candidate species. If the Commission finds that listing is not warranted, the process ends. Within 12 months of the candidacy notice, CDFW prepares and submits a status report to the Commission.
- In April 2020, the Commission determined that the petition to list the mountain lion, Southern California/Central California Coast ESU as threatened or endangered may be warranted, and it became a candidate species. This determination began a 1 year status review, which is underway.
Determination of Whether Listing Is Warranted. After review of the status report, the Commission makes a finding on whether the petitioned action is warranted. If the Commission finds it is not warranted, the process ends, and the species is removed from the list of candidate species.
Administrative Steps to Final Listing. For species warranting listing, ratification occurs at a future meeting, and a rulemaking process begins. Notice of Findings and, if applicable, Notice of Proposed Changes in Regulations are published in the Notice Register. Adoption and filing of regulations then occur, and an Effective Date of Regulation is included in the filing.
Practice Implications for Environmental Review and Permitting
The Southern California/Central California Coast ESU of mountain lion will remain a candidate species while CDFW prepares a status review.
California law affords protection to candidate species as if they were listed as threatened or endangered species. Projects that could result in take should incorporate effective take avoidance actions into the project or apply for an incidental take permit. CESA prohibits the taking of state-listed endangered or threatened species, as well as candidate species being considered for listing, without the issuance of an incidental take permit. If take cannot be avoided, project proponents may obtain an incidental take permit if the impacts of the take are minimized and fully mitigated and if the take would not jeopardize the continued existence of the species. Take of a species, under CESA, is defined as to “hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill, or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill” an individual of the species. More information about incidental take permits and the permitting process is available on CDFW’s website.