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Mountain lion experts settle into new den

Several people in late April reported to a Sonoma Valley neighborhood social media site that a mountain lion, and possibly cubs, were spotted at Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma.

Though unusual — users typically post notices about lost cats, not lion sightings — what was more remarkable was how calm, informed and useful the responses were. No hysteria, no calls for a posse, no alarm. Instead, there were multiple suggestions to call Quinton Martins and the Living with Lions program at Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Since Martins came to the Sonoma Valley in 2015 — first working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma and later with Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve — he’s made it his mission not only to catalog the big predator cats in the Sonoma Valley and beyond, but to educate the public about what it means to share the landscape with mountain lions (also known as cougars or pumas) for which the Valley is traditional territory.

Martins has identified 27 individual lions, numbered P-1 through P-27 (for puma), and outfitted 19 of them with collars that transmit information about their location and movement day and night.

Martins was unconcerned about the Maxwell sightings, which he speculated were of a “dispersal cat moving from one side to the other (of the Valley) using creek drainages as cover, rather than an adult or territorial cat using the area.”

What was foremost in his mind was True Wild, the 2-year-old venture he runs with his wife Elizabeth Martins and supporter Neil Martin.

“A lot of what we aim to do, and have been doing with Living with Lions, is engaging with people in a way to have them understand the value of protecting the environment, of coexisting with wildlife,” he said. He’ll continue to capture, collar and track mountain lions and collect data on their movements for the Living with Lions project while also continuing his research through Audubon Canyon Ranch.

True Wild’s primary focus is education. The group is putting the finishing touches on the True Wild Visitors Center on Highway 12 outside Glen Ellen, directly across from Sonoma Valley Regional Park. There will be research offices and a public information room where visitors can learn about how mountain lions move through the Sonoma Valley and how humans can best share the land with them.

Liz Martins is an educator and will bring those skills to True Wild’s new headquarters on Sonoma Highway. She continues to work as an educator with Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Living with Lions as well.

“We want to look at habitats and ecosystems, observing animal behavior in a different way,” she said, whether it’s in South Africa or Sonoma. “The world is a very connected place.”

True Wild also plans to lead guided hikes through the Sonoma Valley Regional Park across the street (which has a path called Cougar trail). These “awareness walks” will allow visitors see for themselves what a cohabitation landscape looks like.

“We really feel this is a good combination and a great space, a wonderful place to be based,” Quinton Martins said. “We feel that our mission is to do whatever we can to have a positive impact on the environment and find the best ways to do that.”

Taking humans out into a big cat’s world is part of what he’s always had in mind, he said. He was a safari guide in Africa before he started researching wildlife. The best way to teach people about the environment, he said, is to take them out into it “to help contextualize the experience that people have, to talk about conservation and the environmental issues we have in the world in a broader level.”

True Wild was set up to do specialized, conservation-focused safaris. They’ve run several in South Africa that loop up into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its abundant and diverse wildlife populations.

True Wild promises tailor-made “experiences” with professional biologists or ecologists leading the group to wildlife areas, along with luxury accommodations wherever possible.

Martins thinks a similar experience, with similar benefits, could be developed in Sonoma. He’s even offered such wildlife “experiences” already, as auction packages to benefit the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire District. At its August 2018 Starlight Auction, the fire district offered an “exclusive dinner for four with Mountain Lion scientist Dr. Quinton Martins,” which promised “unprecedented, personal access to Dr. Martins over dinner … Expect unparalleled views out to San Francisco, a gourmet dinner with wine pairings of the best local wines and an interactive discussion about mountain lions and the Living with Lions project.”

“The winner got it for $2,400 … which was a large donation for the MVFD,” said the fire district’s longtime board member Allison Ash.

With COVID-19 waning, True Wild now plans to return to Africa for big-cat safaris, as well as a three-day mountain lion tracking “experience” in Modoc and Lassen counties, part of a regional study there, again with paying participants.

Their partner, Neil Martin, is a retired director from Keysight Technologies in Santa Rosa. As an engineer he’s been working with True Wild to develop technology for tracking. He designed a portable “tunnel” that has been used to capture cougars, placed in a location where the cats will pass by but only activated by sensors to trap an animal the size, shape and weight of a mountain lion.

“Our long-term goal is to tap into this incredible financial and intellectual resources in California,” Quinton Martins said. “We might not have the ability to solve all the world’s environmental problems, but there are people out there who are so incredibly resourceful, if they applied their minds to it, we can make a difference.”

The location of the new True Wild Visitors Center at 13875 Highway 12, Glen Ellen is currently marked by a roadside sign and a life-size orange cutout of a cougar, striding off the brick porch.

They expect to open to the public on July 1 and hope it becomes another must-see destination in Sonoma Valley.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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