Mountain lion tracking project expands to western Sonoma County

The Living with Lions program has collared its first specimen in western Sonoma County as the program expands west and north to Mendocino and Lake counties.|

Tracking their path

To report a fresh mountain lion kill, whether the remains are those of a wild or domesticated animal, call Dr. Quinton Martins at (707) 721-6560.

Upcoming public presentations on the Living with Lions program include:

9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25

Marin County Farm Bureau, 520 Mesa Road, Point Reyes Station

6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27

Healdsburg Community Center, 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

See more data from the tracking effort, including maps and a bit more about each mountain lion, by going here.

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.

‘Exciting opportunity'

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.

By the time he responded to her text, Matthews, in the pouring rain, had gotten out the tractor and buried the animals separately in the large pasture.

He had just finished up and put the tractor away when Martins, offering condolences, began to expound upon “an exciting opportunity” that started with digging up the llama the couple called Rocky.

That evening, the group moved Rocky's body into a copse of redwoods just behind the pasture fence where Matthews and Cardamone already had a wildlife camera mounted. Martins was hoping the lion would return to feed on the llama, which it did.

Counting on it coming back a third night, his team set a humane trap and gathered the equipment they would use to tranquilize, examine and measure the animal when it arrived, as well as fit it with a special collar that has allowed them to monitor P14's wide movements ever since.

The first week of tracking data showed the lion has roamed from outside Duncans Mills to the outskirts of Freestone, staying west of Bohemian Highway.

The story that emerged after his capture has been widely shared on social media, drawing support for Cardamone and Matthews as well as for the mountain lion project.

“Clearly, people are getting it,” Martins said.

Prime territory

Sonoma County, like most of Northern California, is prime territory for mountain lions, largely solitary creatures at the top of the food chain that thrive where they can find plenty of deer to eat.

Local studies find their diets consist of about 75 percent deer, 10 percent livestock, an equal share of domestic and feral cats, and the rest a variety of small wildlife, Martins said.

They hunt mostly between dusk and dawn and avoid humans where possible, experts say.

But they will eat pets and livestock if they find them unsecured, putting the onus on the owners of domestic animals to ensure they are safeguarded, Martins said.

“The underlying problem is never going to be solved unless the landowner takes sufficient action to solve the problem,” Martins said.

Sonoma County has proven largely receptive to the message of coexistence and supportive of the big cat project, particularly in the aftermath of the October 2017 firestorm, in which all of the program's equipment at its headquarters in Glen Ellen was destroyed, including GPS collars, which are specially made in Europe at a cost of about $3,000 each.

The program has encountered other setbacks, too. In December 2017, Martins and his team learned that one of the collared lions, a 14-month-old female dubbed P2, was killed for preying on two sheep in the Glen Ellen area. A second collared mountain lion, P6, was killed in July 2018 after it preyed on a goat in Kenwood. Two other depredation permits also resulted in mountain lion kills last year, state Fish and Wildlife said.

High mortality risk

The deaths of young, collared animals were a blow to the program, Martins said. Mountain lions living among humans, exposed to traffic and toxic substances like rodenticide in their prey, a common cause of death, already are at high risk of mortality. In addition to the two killed under permits, three collared lions have died since the program started, including one that was found dead earlier this month.

Martins has worked to bolster public understanding of mountain lion with increased public engagement, making 21 public presentations attended by about 1,000 people in 2018.

He figures many who attend are supporters, and he looks to them to be ambassadors for the cause.

There are signs it's working.

A west county resident who recently posted to a Facebook farming group about the loss of two pregnant ewes and two goats had responses from at least two people eager to connect him with Martins so he could learn about safeguarding his remaining animals in mountain lion territory and perhaps be dissuaded from taking lethal action.

Another man, Jon Newquist, lives between Forestville and Healdsburg and said a mountain lion, perhaps P14, visited their farm one afternoon right after he and his girlfriend saw Martins speak in Occidental last fall. A family member called out and scared it off before the cougar got any of their confined goats or chickens. They heard the lion calling out in the valley later that night, Newquist said.

“We are convinced now that tracking them is better than destroying them,” Newquist said.

‘I can't get mad'

Mary Leo, who lives on Sonoma Mountain, lost four goats to a collared mountain lion, P5, over several months last year. She said she didn't even realize her goats were being preyed upon until Martins saw a social media posting about their disappearances and deaths and began to investigate.

The battery in P5's collar had gone dead, so Martins had been trying to track the animal down across its 250-square-mile range. Leo allowed him to use the remains of her last goat to lure him in, recapture him and reset the collar. Martins told Leo about the cougar's power and strength - enough to clear a very high fence and carry a goat back over in its jaws - and gave her tips on securing her animals to protect them against predation in the future.

“I can't get mad at the animal that did this, because that's just what they do,” Leo said. “That's nature. I don't think he did it to be mean. I think he did it to survive. Unfortunately, it's a sad situation that my goats had to die, but like I say, I'm more cautious now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Tracking their path

To report a fresh mountain lion kill, whether the remains are those of a wild or domesticated animal, call Dr. Quinton Martins at (707) 721-6560.

Upcoming public presentations on the Living with Lions program include:

9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25

Marin County Farm Bureau, 520 Mesa Road, Point Reyes Station

6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27

Healdsburg Community Center, 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

See more data from the tracking effort, including maps and a bit more about each mountain lion, by going here.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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