This morning, we learned that 39M, the downtown puma from Santa Cruz, was hit and killed on Highway 17 around Vine Hill Road. When we caught the young male back in May, we recognized that his survival in the coming months would be difficult. After getting his new collar, 39M quickly proved a very interesting cat, crossing and recrossing Hwy 17 as he explored the territories on either side of the divide. As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, he was also venturing into habitats patrolled by territorial male lions. When one of these males, 27M, was killed last month, we thought maybe 39M or another male might be able to take advantage of this vacancy. However in the end, like most of the pumas on our project, 39M died due to human activities rather than from natural encounters with other pumas.
39M’s death reminds us that species conservation is a multi-faceted effort. While, 39M undoubtedly benefited from California’s new policies regarding pumas in suburban and urban areas, there were still many human caused dangers facing him after his rescue. As a young male, 39M already had a low chance of survival, so it may not make a huge difference to the mountain lion population in our area that he was killed. However, death by vehicles or by gunshot can happen to pumas of any sex and age. Earlier this week, we picked up a small female puma who was hit on Highway 280, and we have blogged often about our adult male puma, 16M’s, injuries following his accident on Hwy 17. These human caused mortalities can alter puma societies, as adult males are removed from their territories or kittens are orphaned by the loss of their mother. If we want to preserve pumas as top predators on the landscape, it is not simply a question of how many pumas live in the area, but also what kinds of pumas live in the area. For example, a landscape populated with territorial adult males will be quite different from one in which adult males are regularly killed. Adult males provide protection for females and cubs living in their territories, and this protection is removed if they are regularly hunted or killed.
The Santa Cruz Puma project is working with Cal Trans and the Santa Cruz Land Trust to study the highway crossing behavior of pumas. We identified the area south of Laurel Curve and north of Scotts Valley as a popular place to cross 17. From this information, the Santa Cruz Land Trust is considering purchasing a piece of land in that location to help conserve habitat for wildlife, including pumas, and to improving crossing culverts. As culverts and other crossing structures are improved, it is possible that we will one day make it much easier for all animals, not just young male pumas, to move between the two sides of Hwy 17.