Caught on camera: Mountain lions nearer to us in the Bay Area than we know

Scientists say the big cats, as top predators, are important to help maintain the balance of plants and animals. They are also among the first species to disappear as natural habitat becomes fragmented.|

The most fascinating creature caught on wildlife cameras in the Bay Area may be the mountain lion, a large carnivore that lives close by, occasionally slipping among us, but rarely seen.

Sherry Adams, a biologist who lives at the Modini Mayacamas Preserves northeast of Healdsburg, jokes that “the mountain lions know me by name,” even though they stay out of sight.

“They are in fact there,” she said. “The cameras show them enough. We know they are around more often than we see them.”

Biologists say the big cats with the long, thick tails are among the first species to disappear as the natural habitat becomes fragmented.

But scientists say these top predators, or “ecosystem regulators,” are important to help maintain the balance of plants and animals.

They keep deer herds on the move so they don’t overgraze, resulting in less erosion along riverbanks, for example. They also open up habitat for other species, according to organizations devoted to protecting mountain lions.

Common names for the mountain lion include cougar, panther, puma and catamount, but it’s all the same creature.

They used to be found throughout the United States, but they are now primarily in 14 western states. There is a small endangered population in Florida.

Groups that study and advocate for mountain lions worry about their long-term prospects for survival as human activity shrinks their range.

“The lion could easily go extinct in parts of the West under our watch,” said Zara McDonald, director for the Bay Area Puma Project, the first large-scale research, education and conservation program for mountain lions in and around the Bay Area.

She wants to avoid the shrinking of the population that’s occurred in other areas such the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California. She said there are six or seven mountain lions there now, compared to about 50 three decades ago.

The basic question at work in such areas, McDonald said: “Is it possible in the long term to coexist with humans?”

Her organization uses cameras and GPS collars to analyze mountain lion movements, and to promote better coexistence and less conflict between pumas and people.

“They are clearly misunderstood,” she said. “Our goal is to raise awareness and compassion and general understanding of what they are, how they move in the landscape. They are not stalking you every time you go on a trail. They aren’t interested in you.”

Their intelligence, resilience, looks and strength make them rock stars of the animal kingdom. “Charismatic flagships for conservation” is how Paul Beier, a biology and wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University, describes them.

Capable of impressive physical feats, mountain lions can bound up to 40 feet while running, leap 15 feet up a tree, climb over a 12-foot fence and reach speeds of 50 mph in a sprint, according to the website

A typical adult male weighs 110 to 180 pounds and a female, 80 to 130 pounds.

Generally they can be found wherever there are deer - their main source of food - but foothills and mountains are their most suitable remaining habitat.

Property owners can reduce their risk of encountering a lion by deer-proofing their landscape, clearing dense brush around the home and installing outdoor lighting that makes it difficult for lions to approach unseen.

Mountain lions mostly hunt at night. They are notorious loners and don’t move in packs, maintaining territories that average 100 square miles. Males don’t coexist and have been known to go vast distances to find their own domain.

Technically, mountain lions are neither threatened nor endangered in California, but are classified a “specially protected species” and cannot be hunted, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

There are roughly between 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions statewide, according to Fish and Wildlife.

But McDonald says that estimate is a crude extrapolation and believes the population is less, perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 lions. There also is illicit hunting in some areas.

As humans and development constrain mountain lion movements, their genetic diversity is threatened. Mountain lions also seem to be dying younger, according to McDonald.

Mountain lions can be killed in California only if a depredation permit is issued to take a specific lion for killing livestock, pets, to protect listed bighorn sheep, or to preserve public safety.

Problems have occurred when they prey on goats and sheep, in the East Bay or Santa Cruz Mountains, for example.

But attacks on humans are rare, with only 17 verified attacks in California since 1890, six of them fatal. The last documented incident was last year, when a six-year-old boy was attacked on a hiking trail near Cupertino.

Studies of collared mountain lions show they often coexist around people, unseen and unheard.

McDonald said she is astounded by how close the mountain lions they track come to busy trailheads in places on the San Francisco Peninsula, near Pacifica and Daly City, for example.

Her organization plans to implement GPS collar tracking of lions in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, and potentially Mendocino County.

One aim, she said, is “trying to understand movements of lions around potential vineyards,” as well as “trying to understand how they’re moving in and around human activity, moves they make when they hit barriers, and dispersal - where are they headed?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year and location of the last documented mountain lion attack on a human. The story has been updated with the correct information.

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