Valley of the Moon lion update
By Dr. Quinton Martins
Tracking the movements of mountain lions using GPS collars is integral to understanding the population and ecology of such an elusive yet charismatic cat living amongst us here in the Valley of the Moon. The Living with Lions project had an exciting month, capturing and collaring five lions that will allow us to further monitor the fascinating behavior of Sonoma County’s lions, while also helping to reduce deadly run-ins between lions and local pets and livestock.
In my capacity as project director for Living with Lions, I received a call on Feb. 22 about a dead deer found partially buried in leaf matter (called “caching”) in the front garden of a Bennett Valley resident’s home. Upon investigation, it was clear that a mountain lion had made the kill, so with the landowner’s permission, I set a trap to capture and collar the animal. That night, the lion returned to discover that its kill had remarkably moved from its original resting place into a wire cage. After some brief scrutiny, the lion walked right into the trap. Sometimes researchers have to wait hours for a lion to return, and frequently the lion doesn’t return at all, so a five-minute wait was a blessing to our team.
The lion was identified as P1, a 14-year-old female affectionately referred to as “Sonoma’s Super Mama.” The research team has already monitored her rearing three litters of kittens. P1 (the first mountain lion that Living with Lions has captured and/or documented with biological samples) was first captured in October 2016, but by late 2019 her GPS collar had dropped off and she was literally “off the radar.” She was only trackable through snapshots and video captured by the Trail Camera Project’s growing system of trail cameras hosted by residents in the valley. “Her bent ear-tip was the only recognizable feature and we had to look closely to identify her,” says Kate Remsen, who manages the Trail Camera Project. A new GPS collar was fitted and P1 is back “on the radar.”
I also received phone calls after landowners’ sheep and goats were killed, which led to the capture of large males P24 and P25 in the Healdsburg and Cazadero area, as well as an interesting female in the Bennett Valley/ Penngrove region. The males weighed 132 and 136 pounds respectively. The female has been documented by local researchers for over four years from trail camera video footage, which shows that she has some sort of congenital neurological condition affecting the way she walks — hence her affectionate nickname, “Wobbly.” It is amazing to consider how this lion has survived; now, with the aid of a GPS tracking device sending researchers hourly location data, it will be possible to piece together how exactly she does it. Apart from the unprotected sheep she killed, in a short space of time the researchers have learned that she caught an opossum and a fully-grown deer. It was also possible to determine from the GPS location data that for 28 hours, she was mating with the local male, P13. This sort of information is simply impossible to obtain without the help of these tracking collars.
The mountain lion collar data also helped us find a new litter of kittens belonging to the Napa female P4, first collared in February 2017. I keep a careful eye on all the lions’ GPS movements, and spotted a classic denning pattern in February. After ensuring that the mom was not around, and being careful not to disturb anything, I visited the site and found a pair of 14-day old kittens nestled in a madrone bush.
Closer to home, Luna (P16) had killed and was eating a coyote, which I located after tracking her movements. Readers might remember that Luna gave birth to a single cub on Aug. 6 in the Kenwood area east of Hwy. 12. A trap was set to capture her and change her collar battery, which was fading. However, instead of trapping Luna, her cub went in, providing a great opportunity to obtain DNA data. An ear tag was placed to identify the female mountain lion in the future — P27. Though now nearly eight months old, this cub is not out of the woods yet, as mountain lion kittens have only a 50% survival rate within their first 12 months. For now, she’s tagging along with mom in the Glen Ellen area and perfecting her big cat skills until she disperses between 12 and 18 months old. The public is welcome to reach out to me for any assistance regarding mountain lions or to join the Trail Camera Project.
I am also working with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue to help people protect their pets and livestock from predators. Please reach out to [email protected] or call (707) 721-6560. For more information, visit www.egret.org/living-with-lions or www.scwildliferescue.org. Dr. Quinton Martins is the Director of ACR’s Living with Lions Project and has over 25 years of field experience in wilderness areas throughout much of Africa and the USA. His work on mountain lions aims to achieve broader environmental conservation, connecting people to the environment and finding ways for people to co-exist with predators.