The state of California encompasses 155,959 square miles of land. Of this, 46 percent of the state is considered to be suitable mountain lion habitat. This habitat is distributed throughout the state except for the Central Valley and much of the southeastern deserts.
Keep in mind that although lions are physically capable of living in certain places (based on geographical, vegetative and prey species characteristics), it does not mean they necessarily do. Fragmentation, sport hunting practices, and intolerant communities can wipe out lions from any area. For more data on habitat-usage, check out our Science tab.
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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 This rough estimate is based on what CDFG admits is only a "guesstimate," and is clearly too high and outdated.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 habitat 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 habitat 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 habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), 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 habitat 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."