Cougar sightings increase with population and habitat loss
Just the thought of coming face-to-face with a real, live mountain lion is enough to raise the pulse and blood pressure of most people, and in fact, more people have been spotting them on the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain. They have popped up in such unlikely places as downtown Berkeley this spring, and few people haven’t heard of some neighbor or friend of a friend who’s had an encounter with California’s top predator.
The number of mountain lions (puma concolor) roaming the high spaces of Sonoma Valley has been increasing since hunting them was banned by public referendum in 1990. But loss of habitat and the mountain lion’s ability to get from one wild area to another are causing problems for people who live near the big cats.
More than 12,000 were killed while California offered a bounty on them from 1907 to 1963 – more than any other state – until Ronald Regan signed a hunting moratorium. Voters made the ban permanent in 1990 with Proposition 117, passed by a 52 percent majority.
Solitary by nature and reclusive by habit, mountain lions are the apex predator wherever they live (aside from humans), subsisting on deer, moose, elk, mountain goats, and smaller mammals like rabbits, raccoons, skunk and even mice when they’re handy. They will also take livestock and pets on occasion. Human deaths from mountain lion attacks are extremely rare.
Some owners of sheep, llamas and pygmy goats on the Petaluma side of Sonoma Mountain have experienced mountain lion predation, sometimes with multiple kills, not a normal cougar trait. They have called in licensed hunters to trap and kill the culprits. While mountain lion sport hunting is prohibited, depredation licenses are issued when they kill livestock and after any incident where a mountain lion is considered to be a threat to public safety.
Zara McDonald, a conservationist and expert on mountain lions, said that multiple kills are rare, but they do happen.
“There are rare incidences where a lion may get into an enclosure with goats or sheep and a killer instinct sets in where it becomes play for them,” McDonald said. “It’s not about food anymore. This is a natural cat behavior, similar to a house cat.
“This is the reason that all residents should bring pets and pet food in at night. Hobby animal owners and ranchers should take the responsibility to properly enclose and/or protect their animals. The pumas are moving as they do naturally, trying to survive on an increasingly fragmented landscape. They are opportunists.” McDonald is executive director of Felidae Conservation Fund as well as the Bay Area Puma Project.
In Kenwood, most reported incidents are sightings, although one Schulz Road resident lost an alpaca and a sheep to a mountain lion, most likely from adjacent Annadel State Park.
Mountain lion (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Beverly Gillespie, a resident of Adobe Canyon Road, spotted a cougar in her yard just a few weeks ago. “Walked under the solar panels to shade and laid there five or six minutes, flipping his tail and looking around, then moseyed off into the vineyard,” she said. “He had a very long, rope-like tail.”
Jane and John Rector have lived at the end of Bristol Road for over 20 years and Jane has spotted mountain lions on more than one occasion. Again, the long tail was the tell-tale marker for the ID.
“Last year he came by the house and looked at me. I saw another outside the gate, and walkers saw it last year, in summer. He had the tail, so I knew it was a mountain lion.
“When you live up here, you expect that,” Rector said. “You have to be ready for it. We keep brush cleared away from the house; we don’t have any grasses or weeds around the house. We have no dogs or cats and don’t leave food outside. We are fenced in. I’m sure we’ll see more.”
While mountain lions have killed people, fatal attacks are extremely rare, with fewer than a dozen reported in California since 1893, most involving children or small-sized adults.
Unfortunately, there is little concrete data about these creatures, mostly because they are so solitary and so seldom interact with people. There are thousands of reported sightings, but very few of those can be confirmed. Identifying the cats is made more difficult because they are most active in twilight hours.
The latest published figures from California Fish and Game cover up to 2007, and show almost 400 reported incidents, including sightings, with only 21 of those involving any danger to people. As a result, five cougars were killed in 2007, statewide. California did not participate in the latest Mountain Lion Conference held in Montana this May and has published no recent information about them.
A rule of thumb is that the cat population rises with the prey population, Kyle Orr said. Orr is the public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). He said that the overall population, statewide, is not increasing significantly, noting that depredation licenses to kill cougars in Sonoma County have been fairly uniform from 2005 to 2009 (see chart below).
In Northern California, McDonald has set out to learn more about these animals through the Bay Area Puma Project, starting with an extensive study in the Santa Cruz mountains that has been placing electronic collars on captured cats since 2008, enabling detailed tracking. See www.bapp.org for more information.
She observed that female pumas have home ranges from 23 to 50 square miles, but that males can range up to 300 square miles. There are no numbers for the Sonoma County population, but she expects to be tracking them north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the next two years.
“Humans are not on their menu, or many of us would be dying every day,” she said. “They avoid humans and our towns, but it has become increasingly difficult because of encroachment.” She said there are only six known deaths in California since 1890 and zero verified attacks in the Bay Area since 1909.
Mountain lions once roamed freely throughout North and South America. They were practically decimated east of the Mississippi by 1900, but have managed to hang on fairly well in the western parts of the country. They breed year round, but typically half of the cubs die in the first year. They are not an endangered species, but their habitats are threatened everywhere.
“We play a big role in their existence,” McDonald said. “We ultimately determine the outcome. We can choose to have these important, top-down regulators in our ecosystems or we can extirpate them as the eastern half of this country did by 1900.
“If we lose them, we will see an explosion of deer, and on top of that, sick and diseased deer, and increase in Lyme disease and other diseases, and serious losses of critical habitat for a spectrum of other species. Lastly, every deer kill that a puma makes is fed on and supports an array of other species. What would our natural world become without the puma in it? Biodiversity will no longer be a word associated with Northern Cal.”
As the availability of open spaces steadily declines, and the corridors between those spaces close off, the big cats are increasingly penetrating human habitations according to all sources questioned. More study is needed to see if the population must be managed more aggressively in the future, if better methods for preserving their ranges can be found, or both.