Half Dome in California's Yosemite National Park
Photo of landsacape.


Help change depredation policies to protect mountain lions in California.

California's mountain lion population has been through many ups and downs. The state encompasses 155,959 square miles of land, most of which was originally prime mountain lion habitat. Yet less than half the state has cats still roaming the hills.

The population has had to contend with bounties, hunting, development, highways, and conflicts with livestock. Read below to find out more about where moutain lion populations in California currently stand.

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California Lion Status and Population

Mountain Lion Status in California

Since 1972, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) has claimed that there are approximately 4,000 to 6,000 lions residing in California. This rough estimate is based on what CDFG admits is only a "guesstimate," and is clearly too high and outdated.

CDFG originally based their crude population estimate on a series of studies which estimated lion population densities for different status types around the state. These density estimates varied from zero to 10 lions per 100 square miles, and were simply extrapolated to accommodate the total amount of available status type.

Mountain lion field research and population estimates have come a long way in the last few decades. Most biologists now agree on an average lion population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of status. In California (~185,000 sq km of status), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state.

Marc Kenyon, CDFG's Bear and Lion Coordinator recently (2012) gave credence to that estimate when he stated that California's lion "population size is, in fact, smaller than it was 10 years ago." He attributed this decrease to dwindling lion status and the hunting policies in surrounding states. He estimates California's statewide lion population to be approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.

Unfortunately, statewide mountain lion population estimates cannot properly indicate the health of the species. According to noted lion researcher Dr. Rick Hopkins, "It is important to keep in mind that no western state, including California, supports one cougar population. There are several populations in the state that react to changes in their environment independent of one another. It is unrealistic to assume that a statewide population of any species, let alone the cougar, is responding in a similar fashion at the same time. For example, the intense development pressure that the population of cougars is experiencing in Orange County is in no way relevant to what is happening in Humboldt County."

California's Killing Fields

Based on a lion-mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, California averages 0.16 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLF's mortality ranking system, California ranks 11th (least deadly) amongst the 11 states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.


Depredation related occurrences account for 94 percent of all reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities in California. Notably, "hobby-farm" animals, such as sheep and goats, are currently the most common type of domestic animal involved in human-lion conflicts. According to one California Fish and Game Warden, who has had to kill numerous lions on depredation permits, the number of lions killed in California could be reduced by at least 50 percent if people properly protected their domestic animals.

Graph of human-caused mountain lion mortality in California.



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