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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.

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.

Martins thinks a similar experience, with similar benefits, could be developed in Sonoma. He’s even offered such wildlife “experiences” already, as auction packages for 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 in remission, 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 up there, again with paying participants. They may someday do the same in the Sonoma area, though probably just for a single overnight.

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

“One of the things I’m hoping for is to take advantage of some of the successful business and innovative approaches that come out of California,” said Quinton Martins.

“Our long-term goal is to tap into this incredible financial and intellectual resources in California,” he 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 it to open to the public on July 1, and hope it becomes another must-see destination for the Sonoma Valley experience.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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