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Mountain lions reduce movement, increase efficiency during the COVID-19 shutdown

Citation

Benson, John; Abernathy, Heather; Sikich, Jeff; Riley, Seth (2021), Mountain lions reduce movement, increase efficiency during the COVID-19 shutdown, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.hmgqnk9h8

Abstract

Wildlife strongly alter behavior in response to human disturbance; however, fundamental questions remain regarding the influence of human infrastructure and activity on animal movement. The Covid-19 pandemic created a natural experiment providing an opportunity to evaluate wildlife movement during a period of greatly reduced human activity. Speculation in scientific reviews and the media suggested that wildlife might be increasing movement and colonizing urban landscapes during pandemic slowdowns. However, theory predicts that animals should move and use space as efficiently as possible, suggesting that movement might actually be reduced relative to decreased human activity.

We quantified space use, movement, and resource-selection of 12 GPS-collared mountain lions (8 females, 4 males) occupying parklands in greater Los Angeles during the Spring 2020 California stay-at-home order when human activity was far below normal. We also tested the hypothesis that reduced traffic on Los Angeles area roadways increased permeability of these barriers to animal movement.

Contrary to expectations that wildlife roamed more widely during pandemic shutdowns, resident mountain lions used smaller areas and moved shorter distances relative to their historical behavior in greater Los Angeles. They also relaxed avoidance of anthropogenic landscape features such as trails and development, which likely facilitated increased traveling efficiency. However, there was no detectable change in road-crossing, despite reduced traffic volume.

Our results support the theoretical prediction that animals maximize movement efficiency and suggest that carnivores incur energetic costs while avoiding humans. While mountain lions may restrict movement at the landscape-level relative to barriers, they appear to increase distances moved at finer scales when avoiding human activity - highlighting the scale-dependent nature of animal responses to human disturbance.

Avoiding humans can reduce direct mortality of large carnivores and is often suggested to be an important mechanism promoting coexistence in shared landscapes. However, energetic costs incurred by increased movement and space-use while avoiding human activity may have important consequences for population viability, predator-prey interactions, community structure, and human-wildlife conflict. Management providing sufficient wild prey and education regarding best practices for protection of domestic animals are important for conserving large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes.