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.
Though unusual – users usually post notice of lost cats, not spotted lions – what was more remarkable was how calm, informed and useful the response posts 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 (ACR).
Since Martins came to the Sonoma Valley in 2015 – first working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, later with ACR’s Bouverie Preserve – he’s made it his mission not only to catalog the big predator cats in the Valley and beyond, but to educate the public about what it means to cohabitate with mountain lions (also known as cougars or pumas) for whom 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 was 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 a venture called True Wild, run by Quinton and his wife Elizabeth Martins and supporter Neil Martin.
“A lot 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 told the Index-Tribune recently.
Though he will continue to capture, collar and track mountain lions, and collect data on their movements for the Living with Lions project, he will do so on contract rather than as an employee. “The shift is really that I’ve been given the freedom to pursue other conservation interests and have more flexibility,” said Martins. “I still carry on with the research work through ACR, while also forging other partnerships with other organizations.”
True Wild’s primary focus is education. The group is putting the finishing touches on the True Wild Visitors Center on Highway 12 outside of Glen Ellen – directly across from Sonoma Valley Regional Park – where it will have research offices and a public information room, where visitors can learn about how mountain lions move through the Valley, and how humans can best share what ACR calls “California’s most parcelized county.”
Liz Martins is an educator, and will bring those skills to True Wild’s new headquarters on Sonoma Highway. She continues to work in that capacity with ACR’s Living with Lions as well. “We want to look at habitats and eco-systems, observing animal behavior in a different way,” she said, whether 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), so-called “awareness walks” to let visitors see for themselves what a co-habitation landscape can mean. “We really feel this is a good combination and a great space, a wonderful place to be based,” said Martins. “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.”
Turns out that taking humans out into a big cat’s world is part of what he’s always had in mind, according to Martins. He points out that he was a safari guide in Africa, before he ever started researching wildlife. The best way to educate people about the environment, he believes, 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.”
Two years ago, True Wild was set up to do specialized safaris “to get the right sort of people out there, in the best way possible, that can have a positive environmental and conservation outcome.” 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” – a word he returns to again and again – with professional biologists or ecologists leading the group to wildlife areas along with luxury accommodations wherever possible.