How to avoid and protect mountain lions in Sonoma County
California is home to mountain lions, and they’ve been in the news more than usual this year.
A boy was injured by one on a trail near San Diego over Memorial Day weekend. Last month, a head-on collision in Lake County caused injuries to nine people and shut down Highway 29 after a driver struck a mountain lion crossing the road. And in April, a young male lion, nicknamed the “Macy’s kitty,” caused a sensation downtown after turning up outside Santa Rosa Plaza.
Law enforcement and wildlife agents came out to corner and dart that cat before releasing it back into the wild. In San Diego and Lake County, the lions were killed.
Despite such headlines, sightings of mountain lions are fairly rare, and attacks on humans are even rarer. How rare? Since 1890, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports, only 17 verified mountain lion attacks on humans have happened in California. In more 130 years, only six resulted in human fatalities.
By comparison, 13 unlucky Americans are killed by falling trees, every year.
Nonetheless, when the tawny predators are spotted near human communities, they tend to attract immediate attention. At up to 8 feet long, nose to tail, they raise some natural questions. Are lions a growing problem? Do we want them in our residential midst? Should residents be concerned?
Those are question frequently posed to Dr. Quinton Martins, Sonoma County’s resident expert on mountain lions. Martins is the Director of Living with Lions, a conservation project of the Audubon Canyon Ranch. He’s currently investigating the North Bay’s mountain lion population, something that’s never been studied on this scale until now. With 20 years of field experience studying big cats in wilderness areas in Africa, Saudi Arabia and the USA, Martins is currently using GPS tracking to observe cat movements in Sonoma and adjacent counties.
What he has found is startling, and reassuring, depending on one’s perspective.
To really understand why some wild felines end up strolling downtown or through our yards, it helps to look at things from the lion’s point of view. Martins’ research offers an unprecedented glimpse of the lions living among us.
The first surprising bit of information is that no one actually knows how many mountain lions are living in California, according to State officials. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is responsible for protecting and managing them, estimated in 1996 that there might be between four and six thousand in the entire state, but that was a “guesstimate,” since there was no reliable way to count them.
That’s how hard they are to spot.
That ability to avoid detection is also probably why the lions are still here, while other more formidable California predators are now extinct.
About 15,000 years ago, before humans arrived, mountain lions were not an apex, or top, predator. They competed with the larger American cave lion, fearsome sabre-tooth cats, grizzly and black bears, dire wolves and other hunters.
Forced to watch their back, the American puma evolved into a cautious animal, considerably more timid than large feline predators in other parts of the world.
Even when trapped and cornered, Martins says, he finds they tend to withdraw rather confront their captor, very unlike the leopards he has worked with.