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Cougar on the prowl in rural neighborhood

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MOUNTAIN LION SAFETY

When living in or visiting mountain lion habitats:

• Don’t attract mountain lions to your home by feeding deer.

• Don’t leave small children or pets outside unattended.

• Install motion-sensitive lighting around your house.

• Don’t hike, bike or jog alone, and avoid doing these activities at dusk, dawn or night.

• If you encounter a mountain lion, don’t run. Face the animal, make noise, wave your arms, and throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children. If attacked, fight back.

Source: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Several mountain lion sightings in the rural residential area of Lomita Avenue, just outside Sonoma city limits, has residents on edge, cats staying close to home and even foxes nesting under porches rather than brave the dangerous wild open.

“I saw the mountain lion last Tuesday morning, at around 5:15 in the morning,” said resident and cheesemaker Sheana Davis-Sessions. “I was going to work over in Yountville. I drove out Donald Street and looked up and down the street, and up Lomita about three houses was a very large mountain lion.”

Davis-Sessions, who says she has seen mountain lions twice before, alerted officials at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who told her that, unless the cat “causes havoc,” there wasn’t anything they could do. “My concern is just making sure that our neighborhood is aware,” Davis said.

That led Letta Hlavachek to create and distribute a flier in a four-block radius on June 6 that listed three occasions where the “small mountain lion has been seen” in the area – including a 12:30 a.m. sighting in a front yard about a month earlier, and another from a man who said he heard a mountain lion. Another area resident then posted the news on a Facebook group page.

The publicity prompted Quinton Martins, a big cat researcher now with the Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve, to pay a visit to the neighborhood earlier this week where, with a small posse of neighbors, including Davis' husband Ben Sessions, he walked the quiet neighborhood as morning birds sang.

Even as they strolled down the street toward the vineyards at road’s end, other neighbors popped up from their yards and offered their own tales, first-hand (or second), of mountain lions chasing house cats, lounging beneath an olive tree in the early morning hours, or repeatedly prowling their backyards.

Martins admitted that his curiosity was piqued by the multiple sightings. “It is interesting that it is said to be small,” he mused. “Generally speaking, a lion would not hang around a very small area for longer than a week unless it is a female with kittens under 2 months; or a sick animal; or possibly a young cat that has lost its mum.”

The wildlife biologist began his studies in his native South Africa and was for a time associated with Sonoma’s Snow Leopard Conservancy. He launched his feline studies with the Cape Leopard Trust, and adopted the mountain lions for study when he moved to Sonoma Valley. Now, he’s awaiting final approval on a tag-and-track study of the range, habitat and habits of the cougars of the Valley.

Martins sketched out a series of interlocking circles in his notebook. “The males’ range is up to 200 square miles, which is 10 wide by 20 long,” he said – about the size of the Sonoma Valley to Oakmont. “But a female’s range is about half that, so a male seeks to hold a territory that holds at least two, sometimes three mates.”

A recently retired career counselor for college students, Hlavachek distributed the news door-to-door, and another neighbor posted it hyper-local network Nextdoor.com. She said that at least seven people in the area reported seeing a mountain lion since last October, although there’s no way of knowing if it’s the same animal.

But the Lomita Avenue neighbors are not too concerned about their personal safety: mountain lions rarely attack people, though they may feign a charge to establish territory. At greater risk are small animals that might prove tempting for a hungry predator.

MOUNTAIN LION SAFETY

When living in or visiting mountain lion habitats:

• Don’t attract mountain lions to your home by feeding deer.

• Don’t leave small children or pets outside unattended.

• Install motion-sensitive lighting around your house.

• Don’t hike, bike or jog alone, and avoid doing these activities at dusk, dawn or night.

• If you encounter a mountain lion, don’t run. Face the animal, make noise, wave your arms, and throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children. If attacked, fight back.

Source: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife

And some neighbors aren’t sure what all the fuss is about.

“There’s lions in the area, but it’s no big deal – they move around a lot,” said one man who didn’t give his name. He said he’d seen and heard them several times over the years. “We first saw him when he was just a kit. I'm sure he'll amble off when he gets big enough or tired of eating cat food.”

Farther up Lomita the street passes between a stone gate, and continues along grasslands toward the vineyards, with a creek on the west side. “That’s Agua Caliente Creek,” said neighbor Ben Sessions. “It’s good to see it with water this year, it’s been dry for a couple years.”

Martins nods and suggests they could find mountain lions down there who have come for prey – deer and smaller animals will go to a creek for water, whereas mountain lions don’t usually need to drink. He decides to come back later – without the party of Lomita neighbors – to check for lion sign in the small creek canyon.

But Martins is frustrated by a fresh eight-foot deer fence that new property owners have put up, apparently to guard an empty field of wild grasses, and by a low but run-down older fence on the other side of the road. “These fences should all be taken down,” Martins grumbles. “They serve no purpose – they’re just an eyesore.”

Back in the neighborhood, Martins evaluates several trees as possible sites for a motion-activated camera, to track the comings and goings of any cats on the road. His initial skepticism about the multiplicity of cat sightings in the area seems to have dispersed, as the landscape clearly suggests this is an edge of a mountain lion’s territory, and their frequent interface with humans is a result of habituation, not hallucination.

“It’s quite clear that because this area is close to natural habitat – you’ve got the creek on one side and the Mayacama Mountains on the other – that what we could be seeing here is the territorial adult, male or female, that would be utilizing this edge occasionally,” says Martins. “Or else it might even be a dispersal lion that’s cruising through, using what one might consider sub-optimal habitat and avoiding the adults in the area.”

Davis-Sessions suggests that he speak at a Lomita neighborhood meeting, to let people know why they’re seeing mountain lions and what it means – and what they can do, or not do. He’s keen to oblige.

“That’s exactly what this is about, apart from the science – public outreach and education,” Martins says. “And the point of education is to increase knowledge so we don’t have a landscape of fear.”

They discuss when, and where to hold such a meeting – which is all conditional on the scientist’s schedule, when he can begin his collaring project in earnest, which can be as soon as three weeks. From that point on, he’ll be busy. But until then…

“I think it’s going to be such a cool project for the neighborhood.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.