Mountain lion litter discovered in Trione-Annadel State Park

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Living With Lions

Audubon Canyon Ranch is studying our region’s mountain lions to identify priority habitats and key wildlife corridors and to promote ecosystem conservation throughout our region. Living with Lions also teaches children and adults about the importance of living side-by-side with our wild neighbors.

Follow program developments at https://egret.org/living-with-lions or on Facebook/AudubonCanyonRanch

Dr. Quinton Martins encourages people to call him when they have an issue with mountain lion predation so he can organize a capture-and-collar response. His phone is (707) 721-6560.

When wildlife biologist Quinton Martins noticed the signals from a collared female mountain lion were stationary for several days, he recognized the signs of what might be a den, where a lioness would give birth to her young. “So I investigated it when (she) was away, and found the kittens.”

The den was in a burned-out tree stump in Trione-Annadel State Park, and Martins found two kittens of about 10 days old. He took a few photos, placed two cameras to keep an eye on the litter, and stayed away. Two days later the mother cat – dubbed “P11” by Martins’ team – moved the kittens to another den, consistent with natural behavior.

Martins, director of the Living With Lions research and education project based in Glen Ellen, said this is the first litter delivered by the 3-year-old P11, who was captured and fitted with a GPS tracking collar in September. The female is one of 15 mountain lions captured and “tagged” with the collars that allow Martins and other researchers to track the range and to some extent behavior of the 100-pound wild felines who live in Sonoma Valley.

Many of those mountain lions are still being tracked by their collars, through a few have fallen off the radar, so to speak – either from dead batteries or, in a handful of cases, because the cats have been killed by landowners who may have lost sheep, or goats or llamas.

One of those, P15, was captured and collared in Napa on Feb. 5 of this year. Four days later, he was dead, killed by a rural resident who got a “pet depredation” permit from state Department of Fish and Wildlife after two of the resident’s sheep were killed.

Living with Lions, the mountain lion research project started by Martins and run under the auspices of Audubon Canyon Ranch, has come to the regrettable conclusion that the odds of survival for local mountain lion kittens is relatively low, less than the normal 50-percent mortality rate for young cats dispersing from their mother at about a year to 16 months of age.

Natural causes of death for young mountain lions include malnutrition due to the mother’s lack of experience or available prey, disease, predation by other species such as bobcats or coyotes, or even infanticide from a male lion if the regional alpha male is gone. Vehicles can sometimes hit a cat, too, though it’s rare.

But the primary reason for that low survival rate is the killing of the cats – known variously as pumas, cougars, catamounts, mountain lions or in some parts of the country panthers – by local ranchers upset over the loss of livestock. It’s a dynamic that troubles Martins and other wildlife advocates who believe it’s better to secure livestock than kill a natural predator.

“The underlying problem is they’re not looking after their livestock properly,” said Martins of the livestock predation. “We’ve had 31 incidents since March, 2017, where collared mountain lions have killed livestock, and all of them were unprotected.”

In recent years, property owners in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and elsewhere in the county have been issued depredation permits issued by state Fish and Wildlife to capture or kill cougars who have preyed on their livestock. Over the past two years, 11 permits have been issued in the county and seven mountain lions killed, including three known cats wearing a tracking collar.

Living With Lions

Audubon Canyon Ranch is studying our region’s mountain lions to identify priority habitats and key wildlife corridors and to promote ecosystem conservation throughout our region. Living with Lions also teaches children and adults about the importance of living side-by-side with our wild neighbors.

Follow program developments at https://egret.org/living-with-lions or on Facebook/AudubonCanyonRanch

Dr. Quinton Martins encourages people to call him when they have an issue with mountain lion predation so he can organize a capture-and-collar response. His phone is (707) 721-6560.

In contrast, in January another mountain lion killed two llamas in a fenced pasture near Jenner. The owners of that property called Martins who trapped the predatory cat using one of the llama’s remains as bait, collared it with a GPS transmitter to track his movements and dubbed it P14, the 14th “puma” to be collared by the 3-year-old program.

“You don’t learn anything from a dead cat,” said Martins.

The solution to puma predation, believes Martins, is to secure livestock at night – mountain lions are for the most part nocturnal or “crepuscular,” meaning they are active at dusk and dawn – in predator-proof pens. It’s a similar strategy practiced in the mountainous regions of Asia, where the Snow Leopard Conservancy, also based in Sonoma, has had success in encouraging rural families to shelter livestock in covered pens, which prevents the conflict between human and snow leopard populations.

“It’s relatively easy to construct predator-proof corrals, especially in the US, where you can drive a truck up to it, unload all the materials and make a decent enclosure,” said Jackson of the Snow Leopard Conservancy. He observed that such a task would take days of walking carrying loads to do in many parts of Asia.

“If somebody who living on a $400/year income can coexist with a predator, why cannot we get people in Sonoma to become more responsible and put the animals in at night or watch over them, if they know there’s a predator in the area?”

Mountain lions naturally prey on deer and smaller wildlife, and small-farm livestock fits right into their dietary preferences. As do cats and dogs, for that matter.

“In our work we’re really trying to highlight the fact that all you need to do is protect (livestock), and we won’t be having these issues,” said Martins. “Killing mountain lions won’t solve the problem, since another mountain lion will come in.”

So far, the Living With Lions project has found that male mountain lions have a range of about 100 square miles, and females roughly half that. In Sonoma County, though the ranges are sizable, what he calls “the fragmented nature of the habitat” is itself a problem. “There are 17,000 private land parcels in P5’s range,” he said, referring to one of the mature male mountain lions in the study.

“What’s fascinating is how these cats have found a way to stay under the radar, to move round people’s private properties, still killing mostly deer to survive.”

Still, every time a mountain lion litter makes the news, Martins welcomes the opportunity to share information about Living With Lions, its mission and successes. But he realistically knows the cuteness factor has a limited lifespan.

“Will you love me when I’m older?” he asks rhetorically, channeling the big-eyed kittens tussling in the den. “They’re so cute when they’re small, but when they grow up they end up facing the barrel of a gun.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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