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Sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, CA, an area of salt marshes and seagrass beds not usually considered their habitat. Judy Gallagher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Increasingly, large predators like mountain lions, alligators and killer whales are moving into ecosystems not traditionally associated with them. Mountain lions have been spotted prowling grasslands, alligators have been seen lounging on Florida beaches and killer whales have been spied swimming in freshwater rivers.

Many hypothesized that the animals were taking over new territories as their populations rebounded due to conservation efforts. But research published in Current Biology Monday suggests that they are actually taking back what was rightfully theirs.

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A mountain lion mother and cub in the Rocky Mountains. Rarepic in / Flickr

Three conservation and animal-protection organizations sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday for funding a Colorado Parks and Wildlife plan to kill hundreds of mountain lions and dozens of black bears without analyzing the risks to the state's environment.

The multi-year plan to kill black bears and mountain lions in the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River areas of Colorado is intended to artificially boost the mule deer population where habitat has been degraded by oil and gas drilling. The killing plans were approved despite overwhelming public opposition, and over the objection of leading scientific voices in Colorado.

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National Park Service

A female mountain lion with three kittens was struck and killed by a car while crossing the six-lane 118 Freeway near Chatsworth, California on Dec. 3. Her three kittens are not expected to survive, the National Park Service announced Thursday.

The remains of the mountain lion, known as P-39, have not been found, but her radio collar was located in the center divider of the freeway. It likely came off as a result of the impact with the vehicle. Her kittens haven't been located yet.

P-39 is the thirteenth mountain lion killed since 2002 on Los Angeles county roads.

About 15 of the big cats are known to inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains, which are crisscrossed by freeways and other roads in the highly populated area. The mountain range extends east-west from the Pacific Ocean to the Hollywood Hills in the heart of Los Angeles.

"P-39's death is a jolting call to action for local and state officials to urgently build the corridors necessary to ensure the safe passage that these majestic cats are entitled to," said Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"People forget that the Santa Monica Mountains are native mountain lion territory," Su added. "It's our houses and freeways that have directly infringed upon their homes and natural corridors."

Prompted by the repeated deaths of these animals while crossing busy roads, wildlife advocates have suggested bridges and tunnels that could act as passageways.The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has proposed building a 200-foot long wildlife overpass above the 110 freeway in Agoura Hills.

Separately, the Los Angeles City Council is looking at enacting a wildlife corridor that would require new development to provide access for animals to transit the area. They say it will help to reduce human conflicts.

"The recent headlines featuring mountain lions of the Greater Los Angeles area, such as the death of P-39 on the 118 freeway, highlights the tremendous pressure facing these big cats due to lack of connectivity, urbanization and habitat fragmentation," said documentarian Tony Lee. He is the producer and director of The Cat That Changed America, which tells the captivating story of P-22, perhaps the most famous mountain lion of all time.

P-22, who lives in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, wasn't born there. In search of that territory, which he could call his own, the big, tawny-brown cat had to cross two major freeways and walk through dense urban areas.

However, P-39 wasn't so lucky. The five-year old had given birth to her second litter earlier this year and had mostly stayed in an undeveloped area north of the 118 freeway. Just days before she was killed, she crossed the freeway for the first time.

Today, there are some 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions roaming California. They inhabit high mountain forests, coastal chaparral and scrubland. They prefer to avoid humans, but conflicts can occur. There have been 15 verified attacks on people since 1986 in the state, resulting in three fatalities.

Source: Mountain Lion Foundation.

Mountain lions are far more likely to be the victims of human actions. At one time, there was a bounty on mountain lions in California. From 1907 to 1963, 12,462 were killed and turned in for the bounty.

But the killing hasn't stopped. Since 1991, 2,542 cougars have been killed under depredation permits and 947 from other causes including vehicle collisions.

One that just barely escaped a death sentence this year was P-45, suspected of killing 10 alpacas on a ranch north of Malibu. The ranch owner was granted a permit to kill the predator, but has since agreed to work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service to either relocate or place the mountain lion in captivity.

Rat poison, which gets into the food chain when homeowners, exterminators and farmers use powerful rodenticides, also threatens the state's mountain lions. More than three-quarters of the cats in California carry the poison in their systems.

In September 2015, a hiker found P-34 dead in a state park in Southern California. P-34, a female cougar, was the "third case of mortality directly from rodenticide poisoning," according to the National Park Service.

But increasingly, people are having to get along with wild animals in urban areas, including mountain lions. And in California, attitudes toward the big cats are changing, thanks in part to P-22.

A healthy-looking P-22 in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.National Park Service

The cat's home, since at least 2012, has been Griffith Park, an urban park that sees 10 million visitors a year. However, few have ever seen the elusive cougar other than in photos.

Griffith Park encompasses just eight square miles. A male mountain needs as much as a 200-square-mile territory.

Inbreeding among cougars inhabiting the Santa Monica Mountains is threatening their long-term survival. A study released in August gave the big cats a near-zero chance of surviving the next 50 years unless more lions become part of the gene pool.

"P22 lives inside Griffith Park, but he is isolated by freeways on every side and has little chance of ever finding a mate. His plight is changing the way Americans think about wildlife management," said Lee. "We cannot have mountain lions dying on our freeways when we have the technology and capability to prevent future mortalities. Mountain lions are territorial animals and need large home ranges and open spaces to survive."

By David Kirby

Do you live in a state that's a top killing ground for top predators?

A new analysis released by the Center for Biological Diversity found that Texas, Oregon, Minnesota and California are the states where the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Wildlife Services killed the most black bears, mountain lions, wolves and bobcats in 2015.

Nationwide, Wildlife Services eradicated 731 bobcats, 480 black bears, 385 wolves and 284 mountain lions. It also killed 68,985 coyotes—almost 17,000 in Texas alone—and 3,109 foxes.

The program exterminated 3.2 million animals last year. Roughly half of those belonged to invasive species, but the other half were native to their regions.

The federal government created Wildlife Services in 1915 to kill predators that feed on livestock. Today, it offers its services not only to ranchers but also to fruit and vegetable producers that suffer damage from deer, birds and rodents and to timber companies that call on the agency to kill bears that strip bark from trees to reach insects and sap.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which has published an interactive map of state-by-state data, Texas was the deadliest state in 2015, with 609 bobcats and 23 mountain lions killed. That was followed by Oregon, with 193 black bears, 27 bobcats and 91 mountain lions; Minnesota, with 220 wolves, two bobcats and one black bear; and California, with 121 black bears, 80 mountain lions and 15 bobcats.

Nationwide, Wildlife Services eradicated 731 bobcats, 480 black bears, 385 wolves and 284 mountain lions. It also killed 68,985 coyotes—almost 17,000 in Texas alone—and 3,109 foxes.

Killing methods involved traps, snares, poisoning and firearms, including those deployed from helicopters and airplanes.

The vast majority of eliminated animals belonged to non-predator species, such as rodents, reptiles and birds.

But the taking of predators is the most problematic part, according to Michael Robinson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"There's been enormous advances in our understanding of the critical roles that predators play in maintaining the health and integrity of their ecosystems," he said. "Scientists are now finding very important connections between predators and the vegetation that their prey species rely on."

When wolf populations are culled, for example, elk have less fear of foraging on tree saplings that grow along streams. But when wolves return, elk tend to avoid those areas, "which allows the saplings to grow into fairly large trees that support migratory birds and beavers," Robinson said. "This blanket policy of destroying predators undermines the integrity and function of entire ecosystems. It defies science."

USDA spokesperson Lyndsay Cole defended the program.

"Of the 24 million animals that Wildlife Services encountered in 2015, 86 percent were chased away from the location where damage was being caused," Cole wrote in an email. "Of the three million animals euthanized, 89 percent were either invasive species ... or native blackbirds covered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's blackbird depredation order." Some 711,000 blackbirds were killed in 2015.

"Lethal control is used only if nonlethal options have been unsuccessful," Cole wrote, "or if nonlethal tools and techniques are impractical or economically infeasible."

Brooks Fahy, executive director of the group Predator Defense, which has opposed Wildlife Services for more than 40 years, said state wildlife agencies also depend on the USDA to kill predators that prey on game for hunters.

"They're funded through sales of hunting licenses, so they try to artificially create high levels of species that hunters like to hunt," Fahy said. "But hunters kill the biggest, most robust animals while predators kill the weakest animals, keeping the gene pool strong by leaving the animals that are the healthiest and most productive."

Fahy said the numbers, including how many cubs die after their parents are killed, were underreported. Dogs and other domestic animals are also trapped or poisoned.

Both Robinson and Fahy said the agency has no government oversight and lacks transparency in its operations. Journalists, for example, are barred from witnessing culls.

"I have fought to implement changes at Wildlife Services for years and for years I have been met with resistance at every turn," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., wrote in an email.

"Taxpayers are spending millions each year to fund a bloated and mismanaged government program ... that uses federal dollars on cruel and lethal animal population control techniques," he wrote. "The agency needs far stronger oversight to ensure that they are spending their federal dollars wisely, and reform is urgently needed."

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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