Sonoma Valley zoologist seeks creative ways to save mountain lions — and the planet

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Mountain lions in California

Hunting ban and other key facts

Public hunting of mountain lions has been outlawed in California since a voter-approved ban in 1990, but each year the state issues scores depredation permits allowing the legal killing of lions that have threatened or harmed people or domestic animals. On average, about 100 mountain lions annually are killed under the permits, according to a 2017 report by the Sacramento Bee, which said 4,000 to 6,000 roam the state.

But no official figure exists on the number of mountain lions in California. An ambitious state effort is underway to come up with an estimated population count, the first in decades.

Audubon Canyon Ranch program Living With Lions, by the numbers since 2016

Number of lions captured or collared in the Sonoma-Napa region: 15

Oldest: 10 years

Youngest: 10 months

Number of those still alive: 9

Number killed by landowners after attacks on livestock: 3

For more on the Living With Lions project, visit www.egret.org/living-with-lions

To report a fresh lion kill to Quinton Martins, call 707-721-6560.

Source: Audubon Canyon Ranch website

What to do if you encounter a mountain lion

-Stay calm. Hold your ground or back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright.

-Do not approach a lion. Never approach a mountain lion especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

-Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don’t panic and run. Try to do so without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.

-Do not crouch down or bend over. Biologists surmise mountain lions don’t recognize standing humans as prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal.

-If a lion continues approaching, yell and throw things at it.

-If a lion attacks, fight back. Do so while protecting your head and neck, and try to remain standing.

-Report sightings of mountain lions to your local Fish and Wildlife office (707-944-5500), local law enforcement or affiliated public land agencies.

Source: U.S. National Park Service

The day after a young male mountain lion made national news by paying a visit to the Santa Rosa Plaza in April, Quinton Martins ventured a guess as to why the feline ended up at the mall.

“Maybe he was going to the Apple Store to upgrade his Sierra,” deadpanned Martins, a big cat expert with a doctorate in zoology, a robust sense of humor and some unconventional ideas about how best to save the planet.

He followed that one-liner with a slew of scientific analysis. But the quip was vintage Martins, whose public relations instincts are as sharp as his tranquilizer darts. He is the South African-born founder of Glen Ellen’s Living With Lions, a project he leads for Audubon Canyon Ranch. One of his missions is to educate landowners, to show them that it’s better to coexist with apex predators than it is to shoot them.

With the help of volunteers and veterinarians on his team, Martins traps the big cats and collars them, allowing the public to monitor their movements and, in a way, get to know them. Not everyone is on board with this marketing-based approach.

“He’s told us many times he wants his animals to be media stars,” said Greg Martinelli, lands program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s a difference between science and advocacy.” With Martins, he thinks, “those lines are a little blurred.”

Martins, for his part, makes no apologies for his unorthodox approach.

“Obviously we need to keep doing science,” he said. “But we have enough scientific information to know that the environment is in a desperate state, and something drastic needs to be done.”

The man who seeks nothing less than to overhaul and defibrillate the conservation movement grew up in Welkom, South Africa, which he describes as “a crappy gold-mining town” 90 miles northeast of Bloemfontein. His happiest hours were spent outdoors, camping and fishing with his father.

“We used to go to some pretty cool, wild places, to go fishing,” Martins said. “I remember the connection to nature, just sitting quietly, enjoying that peace.

“For my sins,” he said with a smile, “I studied for a degree in law. In my third year, I realized it wasn’t my scene.”

Pursuing his path

Martins followed his heart back outdoors, and found work as safari guide. First he was a hunter, then a photographer on safari camps that involved no hunting. For close to 10 years, his “offices” were some of Africa’s wildest places, including the Okavango Delta, a World Heritage site in Botswana that’s home to rhinos, cheetahs and lions.

Two things came into sharp focus for him during that decade: the importance to the planet of those vast wilderness areas, and his purpose on said planet. After earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Capetown, he launched the Cape Leopard Trust. A precursor to Living With Lions, that program has grown and thrived — after a shaky beginning.

Securing permission from the South African government to do his research proved less problematic, he found, than paying for it. Martins hocked many of his possessions to keep the leopard trust afloat. By March 2004, he’d sold his car, was crashing at his mother’s house in Capetown and hitchhiking the 100-plus miles to the Cederberg Wilderness Area to do his fieldwork.

Mountain lions in California

Hunting ban and other key facts

Public hunting of mountain lions has been outlawed in California since a voter-approved ban in 1990, but each year the state issues scores depredation permits allowing the legal killing of lions that have threatened or harmed people or domestic animals. On average, about 100 mountain lions annually are killed under the permits, according to a 2017 report by the Sacramento Bee, which said 4,000 to 6,000 roam the state.

But no official figure exists on the number of mountain lions in California. An ambitious state effort is underway to come up with an estimated population count, the first in decades.

Audubon Canyon Ranch program Living With Lions, by the numbers since 2016

Number of lions captured or collared in the Sonoma-Napa region: 15

Oldest: 10 years

Youngest: 10 months

Number of those still alive: 9

Number killed by landowners after attacks on livestock: 3

For more on the Living With Lions project, visit www.egret.org/living-with-lions

To report a fresh lion kill to Quinton Martins, call 707-721-6560.

Source: Audubon Canyon Ranch website

What to do if you encounter a mountain lion

-Stay calm. Hold your ground or back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright.

-Do not approach a lion. Never approach a mountain lion especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

-Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don’t panic and run. Try to do so without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.

-Do not crouch down or bend over. Biologists surmise mountain lions don’t recognize standing humans as prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal.

-If a lion continues approaching, yell and throw things at it.

-If a lion attacks, fight back. Do so while protecting your head and neck, and try to remain standing.

-Report sightings of mountain lions to your local Fish and Wildlife office (707-944-5500), local law enforcement or affiliated public land agencies.

Source: U.S. National Park Service

Later that year, when a trek took him onto the estate of a landowner, he called the man to tell him, “I was hiking out in the middle of nowhere and I kinda ended up on your property.” The landowner had heard of him, it turned out, and wanted to know more about his pet project.

“I was like, yeah, whatever,” said Martins, who by then was down to his last 57 rand — less than $4 — and had begun to lose hope. But he sent an email to that man, Johan van der Westhuizen, who then asked Martins for a meeting.

Suspecting it was a waste of time, he borrowed his brother’s car, drove to north Capetown and sat down in the office of van der Westhuizen, who pushed a check for 15,000 rand — about $2,200 — across the desk to him. “He told me, ‘I really want you to carry on this work,’ ” Martins recalled, “And I burst into tears.”

Four years later, a sixth-grade teacher named Liz Bond drove to the Cederberg wilderness to recharge after a draining week. Upon returning from a long hike the following day, she met the person other backpackers had referred to as “the Leopard Man.” This was Martins, who told her, “I’m sure I know you from somewhere.”

Bond’s initial reaction: “I thought, ‘That’s a pretty lame pickup line.’ But later we figured it out.” They’d been in an archaeology class together at the University of Capetown.

Bond was headed home, until Martins talked her into staying an extra day, which turned into several days. Three months later, they were engaged.

A big move, a new predator

Late in 2014, after 11 years running the Cape Leopard Trust, they moved to Sonoma where he became assistant director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Martins has long been drawn to what biologists refer to as charismatic megafauna — large species whose popular appeal he takes advantage of to connect with people, and spread his message of conservation.

He’d also felt a strong pull to Northern California, which he describes based on the area’s financial and intellectual resources, as “probably the most important place in the world in terms of the potential to come up with more successful conservation strategies.

“What’s so great about this state,” he said, “is that you don’t feel alone in having a big vision. You feel anything is possible. People make it work.”

While working for the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Martins sought a connection “with a local predator,” Bond said, “and that started the mountain lion project.” By the end of 2015, with that project almost fully formed, Martins was invited to bring it under the umbrella of Audubon Canyon Ranch.

It took a long time to get necessary permits, “so we were a bit slow out of the blocks,” Martins said. When they finally did get a few big cats collared, and started gathering data on them, the 2017 wildfires destroyed every single piece of their field equipment.

Martins sees that, in retrospect, as a blessing. He’d been struggling with the focus of what was then named the ACR Mountain Lion Project. In January 2018, it rose “like a phoenix” with a new name, Living With Lions.

Since then, he has emphasized the importance of coexistence, “a metaphor which, for me, extends way beyond mountain lions.”

He’s also become obsessed with discovering new ways to break through to the public consciousness. “Everyone’s doing great work,” he said of his peers in the environmental movement, “but clearly we haven’t got it right.”

Apple’s success at selling its product, he said, returning to the subject of his April quip, is several orders of magnitude higher than the top environmental nonprofit.

“We’ve got the best product on the planet. We’ve got the planet. We just aren’t able to sell it,” he said.

No easy co-existence

Patricia Damery wasn’t thinking about coexistence, as she beheld the grisly remains of her goat, Dasher, in February. She is an author and self-described “biodynamic farmer” whose ideals — “live with nature, not against it” — were put to the test that day.

Damery’s first reaction was less biodynamic than biblical — as in “eye for an eye.” Her two grandsons had been playing with friends around that same goat pen the previous evening. Her first instinct, she recalled, “was to protect them all.”

At her invitation, a trapper set up a cage on the property, baiting it with parts of the freshly killed goat. The trapper began the process of applying for a depredation permit, which the state fish and wildlife department issues to property owners who’ve lost animals to marauding big cats. Once the permit was issued and the mountain lion caged, the trapper would be required by law to kill it.

Meanwhile, on the advice of a friend, Damery called Martins, who persuaded her there was a better way. He assured her that killing one mountain lion wouldn’t keep others away, though it would throw that area’s ecosystem out of whack.

She changed her mind, resulting in an awkward conversation with the trapper, who’d spent five hours on her property, only to be told to please close and remove his trap because Martins and his team would be taking over.

Then came the call at 1:30 a.m.

“There’s a lion in the cage,” Martins told her. “We’ll be there shortly. Do not go down there.”

Working with local veterinarian Graham Crawford to gauge the animal’s age and weight, the team settled on the proper dose of anesthetic, then darted the cat, an 80-pound male. Once it was unconscious, the animal was placed on a tarp. Martins and his team went into action. Blood samples were taken. Its limbs, girth and teeth were measured. All of this, Crawford said, takes 45 to 50 minutes. As the 15th and most recent lion collared by Living with Lions, he was known thereafter as P15.

Damery and her son put on gloves and were invited to pet the unconscious animal. “We even examined his teeth,” Damery recalled. The Living with Lions team suggested she name the lion, which she dubbed “Jupiter. I just fell in love with that lion, even though it had just killed my goat,” she said.

The naming, and petting and bonding with the lions are practices “we tend to have a little bit of an issue with,” said Martinelli of the state’s fish and wildlife department.

“These are not pets,” he said. “They’re not owned by anyone. They’re wild animals.”

Less than a week later, P15 was shot dead some 20 feet from the front door of a Napa property where it already had killed sheep on two previous nights. The man who fired the shot was a seasoned hunter. He and his wife are the parents of three young children.

“As a parent,” Alejandra Calderon told The Press Democrat in February, “I hope that they understand how scared we were in the moment. It was a scary experience.”

Still, she and her husband were vilified on social media. The couple had vocal defenders, but fewer of them.

One of them is Eric Dicke, whose family has been ranching in Sonoma County since 1867. A road building contractor based in Healdsburg, he has a small number of sheep. He’s also been a state-licensed trapper of coyotes and mountain lions since 1983.

“This whole issue has become so politicized,” he said. “You either love mountain lions or you hate ’em. Well, I love mountain lions, but I don’t love them in my livestock.”

He’s met and talked to Martins, who reminds landowners that it’s their responsibility to secure their animals, to provide them shelter from marauding predators. That’s fine if you’ve only got a handful of animals, Dicke said.

“But if you’ve got three or four hundred sheep, it’s not practical” he said, for many ranchers to build a barn big enough for them.

Lesson for landowners

Maria Cardamone and her husband, Paul Matthews, were not in the habit of putting their llamas in a barn at night. One morning in January, Paul went out to their pasture in Willow Creek, and discovered both animals had been killed.

They’d already met Martins, were familiar with his work and reached out to him immediately. “I’m very sorry about your llamas,” he replied, “but this is super exciting.”

There was a problem. To bait his trap, Martins would need some part of a llama carcass. But Matthews, showing admirable initiative, already had fired up his tractor and buried both victims.

“Sweetie,” Cardamone told him, after consulting with Martins, “you have to dig up Rocky.”

After initially resisting — “No effing way,” he replied — Matthews disinterred Rocky, whose remains successfully lured the mountain lion, a large male cougar, dubbed P14 — the 14th lion trapped by Martins in Sonoma County.

Two months later, his collar showed he had roamed more than 200 miles, between Fort Ross, Guerneville and Sea Ranch.

The experience proved educational for Cardamone.

“I mean, no one’s putting out cat chow for them,” she said. “The lion was being a lion.”

The wider success of that lesson depends on the reach of Martins’ message to livestock owners. Rather than focus on “predator conservation” — the end game — he’s selling landowners hard on safeguarding their animals, as in: “Don’t you think it’s unfair to your goats, that they can’t escape their enclosure, but a predator can get in?

“And hopefully,” he said, “they’ll think, ‘You know, I don’t want my goats to experience that trauma, so I’ll just do the right thing.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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