MISSOULA — A recent study has found that mountain lions used areas they wouldn’t normally go to and it coincided with the shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A quiet road, few cars, and few people were a common sight when the shelter in place orders was in effect. The order affected more than just us.
People have enormous effects on ecosystems and human impacts can touch all levels of the food chain. Although it is usually short-lived in theory, disease outbreaks can reverse these effects.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment to test whether a virus could lower human impacts on ecosystems by reducing humans as the top predator in the food chain.
Mountain lions were found to move closer to urban areas during the pandemic. Even more interesting was that this movement was related to the shelter in place order. Fewer cars were on roads and there weren’t as many people walking around.
Mountain lions actually learned quite quickly that areas around urban zones were more clear than usual as they moved in within a time period of days.
This actually shows a relaxation of the fear of people along the urban edge. Mountain lions are a species susceptible to human impacts, and this allowed those impacts to lessen -- at least for a short period of time.
Human mobility has increased dramatically over the last century with improvements in technology, infrastructure, and accessibility.
Usually, conservation efforts focus on the ways that people are ruining ecosystems generally through urbanization and pollution, but this study shows the sheer presence of people moving across areas also takes a toll on wildlife that fear people. It shows that there are more conservation challenges to face.
The publication demonstrates that the removal of fear, in this case, people being less mobile can bring about rapid changes in a wild animal's behavior.
As emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 are expected to increase in the future. the lowering of people in the food chain and their environmental impacts may become more common.