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 mountainlion.org.
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.