Living with Mountain Lions

Living with Mountain Lions

Living with Mountain Lions

For many people, it can be unsettling to realize that the beautiful wildlands we so enjoy around the Bay Area also serve as habitat for Mountain Lions (also called pumas or cougars). After all, the Mountain Lion is a fierce killer that can eat a human for dinner without a second thought, right? Well, not exactly. The last time someone was killed by a Mountain Lion in the Bay Area was over 100 years ago, and it wasn’t as a meal (a bite from a lion resulted in rabies, although in modern times rabies is not a concern for Mountain Lion populations). Mountain Lions are all around us – if we were on their menu, a lot more of us would end up as lunch.

WildCare's Education Director, Juan-Carlos Solis serves on the Education Board of the Bay Area Puma Project, the first long-term cooperative research, education and conservation program on Mountain Lions in the Bay Area. Dedicated to changing the negative perception of Mountain Lions, this small group of conservationists and researchers is working hard to get the word out that the Mountain Lion is far from being a danger -- frequent or infrequent -- to humans. On the contrary, it is a majestic animal that plays a critical role at the top of the food chain – the keystone species in our local ecosystems – and its presence in the habitat is essential for maintaining the health and balance of the wildlands we so enjoy.

tracking their paw prints

The Bay Area Puma Project originated as a partnership between ecology researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz and conservationists at Felidae Conservation Fund, a Marin-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing wild cat conservation around the globe. “We started this project because rapid human development in the region is threatening the very existence of healthy puma populations, and if we lose them, the health of our environment will go into decline,” says Zara McDonald, Felidae’s Executive Director. “We urgently need to change this course, and find healthy ways for humans to co-exist with pumas, and all wildlife.”

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Puma Project has already fitted 21 cats with tracking collars, including four puma kittens. The Project plans to expand the research to the East Bay in 2012 and the North Bay in 2014. One of the most pioneering aspects of the project is the addition of accelerometers (like those found in the latest video game controllers) to the high-tech GPS puma collars. These give the research team the ability to study literally every footstep and behavior of these highly athletic animals. The data is providing unprecedented insights into the way pumas interact with their environment, including the manmade environment.

racing against the clock

To help people understand these incredible creatures and replace myths with facts, the Puma Project incorporates its research into innovative public outreach programs. “As we become more advanced in our research techniques, we need to tie the research back to strong community education and build public support for sustainable conservation, while there’s still time to make a difference” says McDonald, who gives frequent presentations at Bay Area community organizations, scientific institutions and many local schools.

Changing public perception takes time, and time is not a luxury the current situation allows. Every year in California, about 100 pumas are legally killed on depredation permits after they have preyed upon livestock or pets, and upwards of 50 pumas a year are killed by cars while trying to cross roads. Another major cause of puma mortality, illegal poaching, is hard to measure, but may be even more significant than road kill. By comparison, public safety events, where a puma is put down due to concern for human safety, are extremely rare, numbering only about three per year throughout the state. With all these threats to California’s pumas on the rise, as well as ongoing land development causing rapid habitat loss and fragmentation, McDonald and her team have good reason to be in a hurry.

losing our fear to glimpse their world

To get the word out as quickly as possible, the team is using every tool available. A documentary film, currently in pre-production, will communicate the urgency of the situation in an edgy, provocative format. On the scientific side, a multi-agency project has just been launched to build a detailed map of habitat suitability for pumas throughout the state. In the online world, the team is launching a new video game that lets the player act as a puma trying to stay alive on the modern-day landscape. And in the real world, the team is taking middle and high school students out to the research area to learn first-hand what the biologists are doing. More information about all of this, as well as a list of McDonald’s upcoming talks, can be found at Felidae’s website:

So what does all this mean for someone who loves exploring the wild spaces, but is feeling increasingly nervous about growing numbers of reported puma sightings in the area? One thing to remember is that according to the California Department of Fish and Game, 85 - 90% of all puma sightings are mistaken. Add to that the statistic that you are 150 times more likely to be killed in a collision with a deer than to find yourself staring down a puma from six inches away, and you can start to see the concern from a more balanced perspective.

meeting face to face

Still, Mountain Lions are wild animals, so there is some risk. Appropriate precautions are wise: avoid hiking alone between dusk and dawn; never approach an animal carcass; and keep small children nearby and in front of you. And in the highly unlikely event that you encounter a puma, don’t run away – stand your ground, act big, make noise and fight if needed. A complete listing of puma-related tips are offered by the Felidae Conservation Fund, the California Department of Fish and Game and the Mountain Lion Foundation.

And finally, McDonald’s own experience coming face to face with a mountain lion in the Marin Headlands can provide some food for thought, “Yes, I was terrified, but I also felt a compelling sense of awe and humility as I experienced this striking and powerful creature that rarely lets itself be seen by humans.” After a few seconds, the puma calmly walked away into the underbrush, leaving McDonald transformed, and reeling from such an extraordinary gift. Within a few years, she formed Felidae and co-founded the Puma Project – both being, in some sense, her way of passing on that gift.