Mountain lion sightings alarm residents

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Camera footage still of mountain lion
This lion is seen feeding on a fresh deer kill. Anza Valley Outlook/Thomas Firth photo

Mountain lion sightings have been all the rage on social media in recent weeks. But many have been misidentified and by their tracks found to be other animals or large dogs. However, mountain lions are here in the Anza Valley and have been positively identified traveling, hunting and lurking in the canyons and scrub of the area.

The cougar or mountain lion, Puma concolor, is native to California. More than half the state is mountain lion habitat.

They are cunning and skilled predators, elusive and rarely seen in the wild. The cats’ main prey are moose, elk, deer and caribou in North America. They also feed on smaller wildlife, such as squirrels, rabbits and birds. Mountain lions have been known to prey on domestic livestock, including poultry, calves, sheep, goats and pigs. It is possible, although very rare, for them to perceive humans as prey.

A cougar typically kills a deer every nine to 12 days. They eat up to 20 pounds of meat at a time and bury the rest for later.

An adult cat can leap upward 18 feet from a sitting position. They can jump up to 40 feet horizontally.

Cougars can make calls similar to a human scream.

The mountain lion is the second largest cat in the New World, with the jaguar the largest. An adult cougar can range in length from 42 to 54 inches, with a 3-foot-long tail. Adult males weigh up to 200 pounds, and adult females up to 120 pounds.

Cougars are the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. They range from northwestern Canada to Patagonia, South America.

Cougars normally are reclusive animals which avoid humans. They make their dens in rocky outcroppings, dense thickets and other secretive places. The cats are highly territorial – a male cougar may patrol a range of 50 to 150 square miles.

Cougars begin breeding at about 3 years old, and like many cats, they may mate during any season. Litters of up to six kittens are born after a gestation period of 82 to 98 days. The kittens are weaned in two to three months, though they may stay with the mother into their second year of age.

Male cougars can live 10 to 12 years in the wild, with females living slightly longer than males.

Environmentalists are concerned with the health of the mountain lion populations. It is believed that mountain lions in Southern California and along the Central Coast are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from freeways and rampant urban sprawl and development.

According to advocates, California’s cougars are isolated in small, unsustainable populations. Barriers such as freeways prevent young cats from dispersing to establish their own home ranges and find suitable mates.

This could be causing dangerous inbreeding and genetic-diversity declines, leaving some populations vulnerable to extinction – in fact, some populations could disappear in just 15 years if inbreeding depressions occur.

To protect these cats, advocates are asking that California develop clear state mandates to improve wildlife connectivity. They asked California Department of Transportation, state lawmakers and local officials to create wildlife crossings and protect large areas of intact habitat so the animals and their prey have room to thrive.

Naturalist Thomas Firth disagreed.

“In 1990, a state initiative, Proposition 117, was passed by California voters that banned the hunting of mountain lions,” Firth said. “Mountain lions are not endangered and never were. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife issues approximately 200 depredation permits a year; far more than when the big cats were allowed to be hunted. Despite what The Center for Bio-Diversity, The Mountain Lion Foundation, Friends of the Fuzzies or any other so-called environmentalist organization would have you believe, mountain lions are in overabundance in rural California and its back country.”

Sightings are becoming more common and predation of livestock more frequent. Depredation permits are issued for problem cats that are preying on livestock or in other ways putting people or pets in danger.

“Traditionally, a lion will patrol and hunt approximately a 50 to 100 square mile area during a year; some places more,” Firth said. “Currently in California many of those areas – the San Jacintos being one of them – are being overlapped by more and more cats as they are no longer managed and have no natural enemies in California, and the deer and bighorn sheep populations in many areas are suffering because of it. This is the exact reason why whenever wildlife management is taken away from fish and game professionals and placed in the hands of environmentalist organizations and the voting public, wildlife always loses.”

The use of rodenticides has also taken a toll on the big cats. Since 2002, researchers have found the poison’s compounds in 23 out of 24 Southern California mountain lions tested. Anticoagulant poisons used to kill rats and mice are then ingested by predators scavenging on the carcasses or dying animals, and these compounds make their way up the food chain to the apex predators.

Vehicle strikes remain the most common cause of death for Southern California’s mountain lions.

Mountain lions that threaten people are immediately found and euthanized. Those that prey on pets or livestock can be killed by a property owner after the required permit is secured.

Living in mountain lion country requires some common sense, he said.

In California, it is illegal to feed deer and other big game in California, and it will attract mountain lions.

Trim brush to reduce hiding places for mountain lions. This tip is also good for wildfire defensive space.

Never leave small children, vulnerable livestock or pets outside unattended and provide sturdy, covered shelters for outdoor animals.

Do not hike alone and stay alert on the trails. Loose dogs on trails are at increased risk of becoming prey for a mountain lion.

Mountain lions are quiet, solitary and elusive, and they typically avoid any interaction with people. But as human populations expand into the cats’ habitat, more frequent sightings are occurring.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare; however, attacks have occurred in California. Understanding cougar behavior and how to act responsibly may greatly reduce potential conflict with the big cats.

Never approach a mountain lion. Give them an escape route. Do not run, it may trigger the cat’s prey drive, and it may chase. Running may initiate an attack. People who meet a mountain lion should face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving their arms, throwing rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.

Do not crouch down or bend over. Squatting puts a person in the vulnerable position of appearing like a prey animal.

Bear spray has been shown to be successful in emergency situations with mountain lions.

If a lion attacks, fight back. Research on mountain lion attacks suggests that many potential victims have fought back successfully.

Report unusual mountain lion behavior to the local Fish and Wildlife regional office.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.