How to avoid and protect mountain lions in Sonoma County

Mountain lions are, without question, wild predators, but their habits are often misunderstood.|

California is home to mountain lions, and they’ve been in the news more than usual this year.

A boy was injured by one on a trail near San Diego over Memorial Day weekend. Last month, a head-on collision in Lake County caused injuries to nine people and shut down Highway 29 after a driver struck a mountain lion crossing the road. And in April, a young male lion, nicknamed the “Macy’s kitty,” caused a sensation downtown after turning up outside Santa Rosa Plaza.

Law enforcement and wildlife agents came out to corner and dart that cat before releasing it back into the wild. In San Diego and Lake County, the lions were killed.

Despite such headlines, sightings of mountain lions are fairly rare, and attacks on humans are even rarer. How rare? Since 1890, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports, only 17 verified mountain lion attacks on humans have happened in California. In more 130 years, only six resulted in human fatalities.

By comparison, 13 unlucky Americans are killed by falling trees, every year.

Nonetheless, when the tawny predators are spotted near human communities, they tend to attract immediate attention. At up to 8 feet long, nose to tail, they raise some natural questions. Are lions a growing problem? Do we want them in our residential midst? Should residents be concerned?

Those are question frequently posed to Dr. Quinton Martins, Sonoma County’s resident expert on mountain lions. Martins is the Director of Living with Lions, a conservation project of the Audubon Canyon Ranch. He’s currently investigating the North Bay’s mountain lion population, something that’s never been studied on this scale until now. With 20 years of field experience studying big cats in wilderness areas in Africa, Saudi Arabia and the USA, Martins is currently using GPS tracking to observe cat movements in Sonoma and adjacent counties.

What he has found is startling, and reassuring, depending on one’s perspective.

To really understand why some wild felines end up strolling downtown or through our yards, it helps to look at things from the lion’s point of view. Martins’ research offers an unprecedented glimpse of the lions living among us.

Invisible hunters

The first surprising bit of information is that no one actually knows how many mountain lions are living in California, according to State officials. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is responsible for protecting and managing them, estimated in 1996 that there might be between four and six thousand in the entire state, but that was a “guesstimate,” since there was no reliable way to count them.

That’s how hard they are to spot.

That ability to avoid detection is also probably why the lions are still here, while other more formidable California predators are now extinct.

About 15,000 years ago, before humans arrived, mountain lions were not an apex, or top, predator. They competed with the larger American cave lion, fearsome sabre-tooth cats, grizzly and black bears, dire wolves and other hunters.

Forced to watch their back, the American puma evolved into a cautious animal, considerably more timid than large feline predators in other parts of the world.

Even when trapped and cornered, Martins says, he finds they tend to withdraw rather confront their captor, very unlike the leopards he has worked with.

They may also widely avoid humans because, until fairly recently, they were openly hunted. More than 12,400 mountain lions between 1907 and 1963 were killed in California for paid bounties alone, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation.

Bounty hunting was ended in California by the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990. But that law still requires CDFW to issue what are called depredation permits. They allow residents, whenever an attack on pets or livestock is confirmed, to “take” the offending cat.

Wine Country territory

In the lion’s eyes, Sonoma County is a very different than it appears to humans.

What we see as wild terrain, the lions know intimately. The adults are usually quite territorial, and after establishing dominance, they travel actively within its boundaries, to hunt, mate and chase off intruders. Male and female lions each claim their own territories. By tracking the GPS signals of local lions on the move, Martins has documented that on average, female lions have a home range of about 50 square miles. Males territories may be 150 square miles or larger, and typically overlap those of three or four females.

The reigning individuals will dominate their turf until, with injury, age or a killing, a younger lion takes their place.

Superbly equipped, lions once patrolled their home range with relatively ease. But today they face a far more challenging experience. As people build homes ever deeper into wild spaces, seeking natural beauty or productive land, they’re impacting lion territories in ways we don’t fully appreciate.

For example, one of the local lions Martins has tracked, known as P5, has to cross more than 17,000 parcels of private property within his territory, as well as roads, fences and other manmade obstacles. It has the makings of a thrilling Tom Cruise movie: to P5, each occupied parcel represents a potential danger. The lion’s mission, every day, is to evade and avoid the humans, while trying to hunt, defend a territory against interlopers and, hopefully, start the next generation of kittens.

Opportunistic predators

Without doubt, the preferred meal of hungry lions is deer. The county study shows that deer account for more than 75% of what they eat.

Lions are also opportunist predators, which means if they can’t take deer, they will take skunks, racoons, turkeys and other small animals. That includes housecats and, occasionally, unprotected livestock like sheep and goats they may come across in their nightly forays.

Mountain lions are, without question, wild predators.

But that’s not necessarily the problem, as Martins and others who study them see it. They suggest the loss of pets and hobby livestock might better be seen from an animal welfare point of view, instead of a wildlife management issue. Lions are perfectly able to leap a 12 foot fence from a sitting position. That means any animal in the pen when they do is trapped inside with a carnivore.

Rather than killing “problem” lions, if residents request it, Martins and the ACR Lions Program are now permitted to collar them and study their movements anywhere in Sonoma County.

Residents may not understand that eliminating a lion within its territory doesn’t actually remove the risk to domestic animals. Studies suggest this simply opens a space for other, competing lions to move in. That also often increases unwanted interactions, because there more cats may come to hunt in the same space.

Keeping small numbers of animals or pets inside structures from dusk to dawn, when lions hunt, will protect them both. Keeping commercial herds safe is more complex, Martins notes, and often requires larger investment, but the Lions Project offers further help and information.

To date, there’s no indication that the number of mountain lions in California is growing. Lion populations tend to be self-regulating, studies show, based on the availability of deer. Young lion mortality is quite high. None of the kittens born during Martin’s monitoring project have managed to reach adulthood.

People living in natural areas like Sonoma County learn to stay safe by respecting natural dangers like rattlesnakes, poison oak, steep cliffs and heavy surf.

Knowing what precautions to take, to avoid and protect our resident lions, also requires having and sharing information. Martins’ research hopes to improve our understanding of how to coexist with these shy, wildlife neighbors.

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