Human factor is the wildcard in health of local mountain lions
“She’s quite lady-like,” said Dr. Quinton Martins, describing an 11-year-old female mountain lion – called “P1” – that he and his researchers have been tracking for more than a year as part of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Mountain Lion Project. The project is based out of Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen. In observation, P1 is reserved and rarely flustered, said Martins, and she is also a supermom, having guided two litters of kittens to adulthood while being tracked by the research project. Although getting up there in years – 10 years is considered old age for a mountain lion in the wild – P1’s GPS collar shows she still moves throughout her 50-square-mile territory, focused in the Sonoma Mountain and Glen Ellen areas.
Fire survivalEven after the October 2017 firestorm raged through the valley, P1 and her other study counterparts, six cats in total, seemed to have been hardly affected. All collared lions being tracked at the time of the fire managed to survive and Martins and his researchers found no evidence of other injured cats in the area.
For centuries, wild animals have lived with, and thus adapted to, fire in the landscape, and there’s no reason the lions should be any different. Video evidence captured in Sugarloaf State Park during the October fires show deer cautiously walking around slow-burning flames, moving just fast enough to stay out of harm’s way.
A preliminary observation in the weeks after the fire suggested about 50 percent of optimal lion habitat across the project study area was burned. “In the long-term this will be good, with rejuvenation inviting opportunities, but for now it is likely hard for them. I wouldn’t say they have been displaced so much as re-routed,” wrote Martins on Audubon Canyon Ranch’s (ACR) website. Because lion ranges are so extensive (up to 300 square miles for males), they have options, although their “core” areas might shift with a need to focus on areas where deer (their primary prey) are moving.
“They are carrying on ‘business as usual’ for the most part,” said Martins.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Martins and his ACR research team. Bouverie Preserve was burned badly during the fire and the project’s offices and electronics were destroyed, along with a substantial amount of field equipment, including vehicles, cellular cameras, and some high-tech cage-traps, developed with help from Keysight Technologies. Starting from scratch, as of May, they’ve rebuilt two units.
With rebuilding of the burned structures at Bouverie Preserve three to five years away, the research team is working out of temporary office space set up in Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and their bedrooms, to get the project back up and running, aided by generous donations from throughout the Bay Area, and even internationally.
Living with lions
Another change that’s come after the fires is a new name and a new focus for the project, relaunched in January as “Living with Lions.” Over the past two years ACR researchers have identified one of the greatest threats to the health of the local lion population – the frequency of contact between humans and mountain lions.
The dominant male in the area, known as P5, whose territory covers 250 square miles, from the town of Calistoga south to Schellville through the Mayacamas Mountains and Sonoma Mountain, crosses approximately 17,000 private land parcels as he moves through his range. That’s an abnormally high number, said Martins, when compared to other places in California, like the Western Sierras, where large tracts of land are less divided and more likely to be owned by one landowner. This means that in Sonoma Valley mountain lions have a higher chance of coming into contact with more individual landowners than other places in the state, which unfortunately raises the likelihood of conflict with those landowners.
While mountain lions pose little threat to human beings – often preferring to avoid them altogether – mountain lions are genetically built to track and hunt prey, and when they come upon unsecured livestock or other domesticated animals “any self-respecting lion” will take the opportunity, said Martins.
In December 2017, P2 – a 26-month-old female mountain lion and daughter of P1 – killed pet livestock in the Sonoma Mountain area, distressing a landowner who was still grappling with the fallout from the Nuns fire. The landowner could not identify P2 as a study animal, since she had lost her GPS collar in the weeks after the fire, and opted to remove the lion through a depredation permit issued by California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Regrettably, the research team was not able to intervene and P2 was killed.
However, the Living with Lions team negotiated a better outcome for P5, the resident male, after he got into similar trouble when he was targeted with a depredation permit after he killed livestock in the Sonoma Mountain area. The property manager agreed to meet with Martins and after learning the importance of mountain lions in the ecosystem – and the story of this particular lion – the rancher spared P5’s life. On ACR’s recommendation, a new barn to house the remaining livestock was purchased, keeping them safe from predators every night, which is ultimately the best way to solve the underlying problem.
Protecting livestock“We know with 100 percent certainty that all lions will take unprotected livestock. All our collared cats have taken domesticated animals,” said Martins. “But removing the offending lion is not the solution. Instead of getting rid of a problem, it can often make the situation worse.”
For example, killing a territorial male may increase the number of lions in a given space as males from outlying areas try to claim the territory. And a male from another area, who may not know the prey patterns as well, will be more likely to take easy-to-get livestock if they don’t know where to find natural prey.
The best way to keep animals safe is to secure them in a predator proof pen and/or make sure they go inside a protected area at night. This goes for pets, too (out of more than 400 kills, Martins’ team has evidence that house cats – it’s not known if they are feral or not – make up a portion of local mountain lion diet).
“Removing the lions makes no sense ecologically,” said Martins. To that end, Living with Lions has expanded the goals of the project to partner with landowners and managers to implement the best methods to deter mountain lions from preying on pets and livestock. The project has also formed a new partnership with Dr. Justin Brashares and the Brashares Lab of U.C. Berkeley. The joint operation expands the study area of ACR’s Living with Lions from 1,000 square miles of the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma and Napa counties into Mendocino County and includes the U.C. Hopland Research and Extension Center, site of the Lab’s deer behavior and collaring program. “We’re excited about opportunities to broaden our knowledge of the regional lion population, research effective mitigating measures to protect livestock against predators, as well as conduct in-depth research on mountain lion foraging behavior,” said Martins.
Fences no deterrentOne of the things Martins is curious about is how fences are affecting foraging behavior. A 12-foot fence is no problem for a mountain lion to scale, but it is a problem for their prey. If fences are affecting deer movement, how is it affecting the lions’ movement? In some kills, Martins have seen evidence of the lions using fences to their advantage to pen in and kill prey. If deer are concentrated in one area, how does it affect the greater habitat?
“If mountain lions are able to live in an area, it shows there is still some semblance of an ecosystem there,” said Martins. “By protecting the lion, we are doing a sort of habitat conservation, as well.”
Learn moreACR’s Wildlife Ecologist, Dr. Quinton Martins, will provide an update on the research results of Living with Lions, ACR’s mountain lion research and education project on Thursday, May 17, at 7 p.m. at the Bennett Valley Guild (formerly Grange), 4145 Grange Road, Santa Rosa.
His talks are always very popular and parking will be a challenge. Please carpool if at all possible.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.