Mountain lion tracking project expands to western Sonoma County
WILLOW CREEK - It is no surprise that a mountain lion would choose to roam the sweeping wooded ranch near Jenner settled by Paul Matthews and Maria Cardamone.
The couple revels in the abundance of wildlife, from bobcats to bears, that regularly crosses the 247 acres they call Willow Creek Ranch - a patch of flat land on the verdant valley floor that rises swiftly to a steep redwood-cloaked ridge standing between them and the Sonoma Coast.
But when a mountain lion made a meal of Matthews and Cardamone's two llamas earlier this month, killing the retired pack animals in the fenced pasture alongside their house, it was a shock.
The slain animals were discovered early Jan. 6 when Matthews, 62, went out to feed their two large Saanen goats and the chickens and llamas the couple had adopted over the years.
Though not exactly pets, the llamas were “lovely animals, really nice,” and served as kind of guard animals for the others, Cardamone said.
Unlike the two goats, the llamas disliked going in the barn at night and so stayed out in the pasture, where the mountain lion found them, easily clearing a fence intended to allow for the passage of wildlife, principally deer, through the grounds.
Under state law, the couple might have applied for a depredation permit allowing them to trap and kill the responsible mountain lion. Eight other Sonoma County residents did so last year, though only six such permits were issued, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But it was not a choice Matthews and Cardamone considered, given their long support for wildlife and conservation-related causes.
Instead, their loss was the key to extending an ongoing study of mountain lions in Sonoma Valley to western Sonoma County, using one llama's remains to lure the Willow Creek Ranch puma into a trap where he was tranquilized and collared with a GPS tracking unit, then released back to the wild.
“These are wild animals who have just as much right to live here as we do,” said Cardamone, 64.
Trapping and tracking
The large male cougar, estimated at over 2 years old, is known as P14 - the 14th lion collared in the Living with Lions research program run by Quinton Martins and the Audubon Canyon Ranch conservation nonprofit. Seven living mountain lions with active collars are now being monitored under the program, as five animals trapped earlier are now dead and two still presumably living have inactive collars.
California's mountain lion population has been previously pegged at 4,000 to 6,000 - an estimate that state officials have called outdated as they work on establishing a new number. No estimate exists for Sonoma County, a data gap that Martins is hoping his work will help fill.
Hunting of mountain lions in California has been banned since 1990, when voters passed a ballot measure that reserved the right for landowners whose pets or livestock are killed to seek depredation permits. The state also can eliminate lions deemed a threat to public safety, a rare occasion over the past three decades.
As of last year, 20 people in North America had been killed over the past century by mountain lions, according to Audubon Canyon Ranch.
Martins, a South African biologist and big cat expert, has been tracking resident Sonoma Valley cougars since July 2016 to help map their territories and travels, identify the region's key habitats and wildlife migration corridors, and promote conservation efforts to support the species' survival in a developed world.
Last June, he was given approval by state authorities to begin collaring mountain lions in west Sonoma County as well as large portions of southern Mendocino and Lake counties, including the Cobb and Cow Mountain areas, Clear Lake and Ukiah Valley.
But he needed help to start.
Martins' Sonoma Valley permit allows him and his crew to scout and capture mountain lions spotted by wildlife cameras or reported through public calls and other means.
In their new work outside of the valley, they're limited to collaring animals only in cases like the Willow Creek Ranch llama loss, where they are invited by landowners who've lost a domestic animal to suspected lion predation. Moreover, Martins needs to be notified right away, within the first day or so, while the mountain lion is still present and likely to return to its kill, where it can be captured.
Martins, whose name is becoming increasingly familiar in Sonoma County through publicity and presentations about the Living with Lions project, already was on friendly terms with Cardamone and Matthews, who help support his project financially.
Their work together on P14 started after Cardamone informed him of the llamas' deaths because she thought he'd be interested and she wanted him to confirm through photos that a mountain lion was indeed the culprit.
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