opinion/openforum/article/No- mountain-lions-won-t-drop- dead-if-16984604.php
No, mountain lions won’t drop dead if California builds duplexes. But some towns are in their habitat
March 8, 2022
Woodside was ridiculed after claiming itself a mountain lion habitat in seeming attempt to avoid a state housing law. Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle
The Bay Area town of Woodside recently found itself in the international spotlight, and not in a good way. Officials in the town of 5,000 in the heavily forested foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains wanted to pause housing applications under SB9, a law meant to encourage construction, because they believed Woodside is habitat for mountain lions and wanted to await a determination from the state on whether the species would be protected.
The issue raised a question that has garnered widespread mockery: To what extent should developed areas with single-family homes be considered habitat for mountain lions?
California Attorney General Rob Bonta gave his unequivocal answer in a statement he issued last month chastising Woodside officials. “Habitat is land that has the capacity to support a specific species, including providing food and shelter,” he said. “Land that is already developed — with, for example, a single-family home — is not, by definition, habitat.”
Bonta’s tone was undoubtedly meant to send a message to all California communities who have been reluctant to get on board with the state’s new housing laws. But his rationale in rebuffing Woodside’s claim is incorrect.
Bottom line: Building a house — or a duplex — on a plot of land does not eliminate the ability of that land to support wildlife and native plants.
For those who have never been, Woodside isn’t the lawn-filled suburban enclave you might have guessed from its recent media depiction. The town is adjacent to large, natural open spaces, part of what’s called the wildland-urban interface — that is, a place where people and wildlife share space and resources. In these areas, homes are intermingled with redwood forest and coast live-oak woodland, accessed via narrow, winding mountain roads. Deer are much more common than transit stops (the only bus that serves Woodside only runs on Saturdays). And not coincidentally, these heavily wooded hillsides with their challenging terrain are also wildfire hazard zones.
Whatever you may think of state housing policies, one thing is true: Woodside is indeed mountain lion habitat, and treating that habitat responsibly is critical to the survival of this species.
Mountain lions, also knowns as cougars, once freely roamed the hills, forests and grasslands of the Bay Area. Their habitat has been severely degraded by development. But these big cats still live here. There are only around 2,000 to 3,000 cougars left in California. They are currently a “candidate species” under the California Endangered Species Act, giving them the same protection as threatened and endangered species. Mountain lions are at the top of the food chain. A robust cougar population keeps the whole ecosystem in balance.
That ecosystem includes many California neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the controversy in California over housing density has raised the political stakes to the extent that it has generated gravely misinformed public statements about wildlife habitat. The assumption that anything short of a state or national park isn’t habitat and has no conservation value is inaccurate and damaging to efforts aimed at preserving biodiversity.
Indeed, the Bay Area is a biodiversity hotspot equal to Madagascar, and towns in the foothills to the west of Interstate 280 contain much of that biodiversity. These areas are threatened by human development; they make up just 2.5 percent of the planet’s surface but represent an outsize opportunity to protect a large variety of species. This demands land use planning with extra care.
Woodside inarguably has areas of mountain lion habitat. We therefore have a particular obligation to take account of the habits and needs of cougars when building here. Most importantly, we should prioritize protecting key wildlife corridors when planning for development. Our plans should account for the needs of wildlife, especially large mammals, that require room to roam, feed and breed.
This issue is not unique to the Peninsula. Ventura County just passed ordinances requiring environmental review for projects that may hinder wildlife connectivity. Wildlife crossings being built across Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains and across Highway 101 northwest of Los Angeles show efforts to connect wildlife habitat are necessary and possible. Both wildlife crossings will save human and animal lives and increase efforts to keep species from dying out by allowing cougars and other animals to access additional habitats and populations. Recognizing the ecological crisis caused by divided habitats across the U.S., Congress recently allocated $350 million to support these types of crossings.
In other words, “habitat” is not something only found in remote wilderness areas.
Even as we must plan for adequate affordable housing for all Californians, we must also protect sufficient habitat for our state’s wild animals and plants to survive, particularly in the wildland-urban interface.
No, that doesn’t mean mountain lions will drop dead if we build duplexes. But it does mean housing goals can and should exist alongside our obligation to preserve our environment, keep people safe in an era of increasing wildfires and create housing policies that recognize the importance of wildlife in our extraordinary state.
As our planet faces an existential biodiversity crisis, let’s remember that mountain lions deserve a place to live, too.
Nancy Reyering is a 35-year resident of Woodside and is president of the San Mateo County Harbor District.
EDITORS NOTE: Lucas Valley is also home to mountain lions. They have been spotted in Marinwood Park on rare occasions. They are extremely shy and seldom seen. Most often the bobcat is seen in our neighborhoods. Many people mistake them for mountain lions which are much bigger.