Luring mountain lions to learn to live amongst them

Flickr photo by becotopia. http://www.flickr.com/photos/becotopia/3217473852/

One of the Bay Area’s native animals, the mountain lion, goes by many names: puma, panther, cougar, catamount, painter. One of the most apt, perhaps, is “ghost cat,” earned for the animal’s skill at staying out of human sight. That skill has helped to ensure their ongoing survival here. Mountain lions, like grizzlies and wolves, were subjected to hunting bounties in the 20th century in an attempt to eradicate them. Those other predators were extirpated (which in case you were wondering, means “to destroy totally or exterminate”), as were lions from the eastern two-thirds of the United States. But the lions’ continued presence here links us to a past California, wild and rich in biodiversity. Now scientists are studying the Bay Area’s big cats in an effort to bridge the cultural divide between them and us, to make our neighboring habitats safe for all. Erica Gies reports.

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ERICA GIES: Cliff Wiley is driving his truck slowly along a dirt back-road in the Santa Cruz mountains above Los Gatos. The vistas and wildflowers are breathtaking, but Wiley’s not paying attention to that. Instead, he hangs his head out the window, staring intently at the ground. When he sees a soft spot, he stops, gets out, and reads the mud like a billboard: bobcat, three hours ahead; wild pig, two days ago. But Wiley’s not looking for pig or bobcat; he’s looking for mountain lions.

CLIFF WILEY: This is called a scrape, or some people call them lion markers. And this ridge is a good thing to go by, and the width of the hind foot's what makes ‘em. And they rake up high like this and urinate. Sometimes they leave a scat there. And it’s like marking their territory. Let ‘em know the big dog’s in town.

Wiley has an unusual job in this day and age. For more than 30 years, he’s been a mountain lion tracker for the California Department of Fish and Game. For the last three years he’s been catching lions along with Professor Chris Wilmers, for a study out of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

CHRIS WILMERS: Most studies of large carnivores have been in these large, undeveloped areas, and I’ve become increasingly interested in how these large carnivores manage to coexist with humans in these more developed areas.

In the past year, two lions were killed by officials in Berkeley and Redwood City. But such events are pretty rare, considering that lions live all over the Bay Area, and all the non-developed, mountain areas they can find. Los Gatos was named for two lions seen fighting in the hills above town.

That's actually not the sound of a lion on a hunting rampage. It's a female looking for love. While lions typically lead solitary lives, when they mate, they couple 70 times a day.

Although they live all around us, encounters with lions are unusual because there just aren’t a lot of them and each lion has a large territory. In the Bay Area, males use about 200 square miles and females about 50. People are increasingly hiking and biking in mountain lion country, yet attacks remain exceedingly rare – although media hype may make it seem otherwise.

WILMERS: With over 30 million people in California and thousands of lions, there’s only been six lethal attacks in the entire history of the state. So basically that means there’s a very, very, very small probability of ever getting attacked, and if you do, of dying. You’re much more likely to die from getting struck by lightning or from impaling yourself on your toothbrush than you are from a mountain lion.

The tiny risk of lion attacks on humans is more than offset by what lions bring to the neighborhood. Their presence weeds out weak and sick deer and keeps their population in check, protecting native plant communities and the animals they support. They even reduce instances of human disease.

WILMERS: We’re starting to understand now that Lyme disease is directly related to how many small rodents you have. And if you don’t have predators killing those small rodents, then you’re going to have more of them.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services declared the eastern cougar extinct. Many western states ended their bounty programs in the 1960s and ‘70s but still allow lion hunting. California banned the practice in 1990.

Still, if a lion in California kills anything humans care about – livestock, pets, or people – it will likely be killed using a depredation permit. Statewide, 42 lions were killed this way in 2009.

But the biggest threat to lions is habitat loss and getting hit by cars. In the Bay Area, where the human population has doubled in the last 50 years, from 3.5 million in 1960 to more than 7 million today, housing and strip malls fill what was once lion land.

Data about where lions go can help set conservation priorities. But first trackers like Cliff Wiley have to catch them. It’s a seduction, a wooing. To pique lions’ interest, he uses road-killed, bloody deer, rigged to transmitters that send signals when moved. Wiley makes the rounds, checking on the carcasses.

WILEY: This part was eaten the night before last. And I think buzzards did most of that. But the muscle meat there is either a bobcat, coyote. Who knows?

A recording of a rabbit in distress is the second part of the lion lure. Wiley hopes it will attract a lion to a planted deer carcass, allowing nearby motion-detecting cameras to take photos, or ideally, give researchers a chance to catch the big cats.

Lions can be captured using box or snare traps. But those can be dangerous if researchers don’t tend to the animals quickly.

WILEY: Sometimes they tend to chew on the cage or they hurt their claws. They can hurt themselves crashing into it trying to get out of it.

Wiley, being a houndsman, prefers to track lions with hounds. He’s got a dog box in the back of his truck in which four of his best hounds, Boomer, Sky, Cotton, and Ziggy, eagerly await their chance to sniff out a lion.

WILEY: This is the dog. She’s knows everything you say. But, usually does the opposite. She’s a clown. Hey! You’re not going anywhere yet! Hey, get up there!

But finally, they’ve been waiting for arrives.

WILEY: Release the hounds! Release the hounds! They’re loose. There they are out there, running around.

When the dogs tree a cat, they bay. Some are false alarms; this time, they corner a bobcat. When the dogs do tree a mountain lion, Wiley darts it with a tranquilizer. He is careful to make sure the cat won’t fall into a river or over a bluff.

WILEY: As soon as you pull the trigger on that dart gun, you’re pretty much responsible for whether it lives or dies.

Researchers take blood samples and measurements to learn more about lion biology. And perhaps most importantly, they fit lions with tracking collars, providing critical data about what they do and where they go. For the most part, lions hunt and eat deer and avoid human areas.

WILMERS: An individual lion has a large home range. And it might be that they need to make use of multiple protected areas in their lives to hunt and do all the things that a lion needs to do to survive and reproduce. And so if there’s blockages between those protected areas, then they’re going to end up getting into trouble, going into developed areas.

Some solutions include creating wildlife overpasses, widening culverts on the roads, and building fences to funnel lions and other animals through these passages.

WILMERS: There’s something about having large carnivores which makes the landscape feel wild and feel natural. There are species that have always been here and throughout much of the world, we’ve pretty much eliminated all the large carnivores. So having them in our own backyards reminds us of what it’s like to actually have wild habitat.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, I’m Erica Gies, for Crosscurrents.

This story was funded by community contributors through the micro-donation website Spot.us. Spot.Us is a nonprofit project whose goal is to pioneer “community powered reporting.”