She was doing everything she tells people not to do: running on a trail alone at dusk.
“A mountain lion popped out of the brush right above me, 10 feet away,” says Zara McDonald. “For several minutes, he stared down at me, indifferent to my presence, before slipping away into the brush. The experience left me with the feeling that this animal belonged in this landscape, and I was the intruder.”
That moment changed the life of Zara McDonald, President of the Felidae Conservation Fund and co-founder of the Bay Area Puma Project (BAPP). Since that first mountain lion encounter in the early 2000s, McDonald has dedicated her life to research and conservation intended to promote understanding and better co-existence between cougars and a human population reaching ever deeper into their habitat.
Mountain lions, also known as pumas and cougars, fill our imagination with an odd mixture of excitement and primal fear. Solitary and secretive, they drift through broad reaches of wilderness, taking every measure to avoid human contact. You have probably never seen a mountain lion, but almost certainly, they have seen you.
From sea level to 14,000 feet, across deserts and rainforests, mountain lions inhabit a wide variety of habitats from Canada to the tip of South America, the largest geographic range of any land mammal. Males require home ranges from 100 to 200 square miles that will overlap several female ranges of 40 to 80 square miles. Males can weigh as much as 200 pounds and are up to 9 feet long including their tail which is 40 percent of their body length. Female mountain lions will begin reproducing at age two with litters of two to four cubs. Animals live from six to 13 years in the wild.
Fish and Wildlife officials are not certain, but they estimate that there are 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in California. BAPP research has primarily been in the Santa Cruz Mountains. According to McDonald, “Based on our research in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the collaring data has given us a count of 50 to 70 lions from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. Outside the Santa Cruz Mountains, we have not done collared studies and do not have an accurate count of mountain lion populations in the Diablo Range.”
While there may not be accurate data on cougar populations in the Mount Hamilton Range, the terrain is excellent habitat and anecdotal evidence suggests that the range hosts a healthy mountain lion population. During Barry Breckling’s 30 years as the ranger at Henry Coe State Park, he encountered more than 20 mountain lions.
“My favorite mountain lion encounter happened while travelling one of the park’s many backcountry roads,” says Breckling. “Up ahead, I saw a female mountain lion and her cub. The cub ran past me and plopped down in an open grassy field while the mother walked up the hill, just 20 feet away. I got out of my jeep and walked toward the mother. She turned toward me, growled, and scampered to a knoll 100 feet away. I turned back thinking of the cub, which surely must be gone by now. A slightly different color caught my eye. Six feet away, hunkered down motionless in the grass a beautiful spotted cub stared back at me. Seconds later, she darted off toward her mother. I returned to my jeep and drove away, exhilarated.”
As human habitation reaches deeper into mountain lion habitat, males looking for a new territory inevitably spill into populated areas.
“We are doing a lot of work in northern San Mateo County where young male lions trying to disperse are hemmed in,” says McDonald. “They are killed crossing Interstate 280, or they successfully cross it and follow deer into neighborhoods. There is no place for them to go. The only two ways out of the Santa Cruz Mountains are the Pajaro River and Coyote Valley.”
Coyote Valley is an active corridor for a variety of wildlife that connects the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. Interestingly, McDonald says that extensive data gathered by Julie Philips at DeAnza College from camera research showed lions moving only west, from the Diablo Range to the Santa Cruz Mountains. There were no images of lions moving east into the Diablo Range.
Imbedded deep in our DNA, the fear of attack by mountain lions looms far larger than the actual threat. Since 1890, there have been nine deaths due to mountain lions in California. McDonald says that the last fatal lion attack in the Bay Area was in Morgan Hill in 1909. A mother and daughter died not directly from the attack, but from rabies carried by the lion. Even in an ever expanding urban area of seven million people, the odds of an attack are amazingly small. “Mountain lions do all they can to avoid humans,” says McDonald. “In virtually every attack, something is wrong: a nutritional issue, mange, or an inexperienced lion that lost her mother before learning the ways of the world.”
According to McDonald, the biggest issue for mountain lions in the Bay Area is conflict born out of fear. To replace the fear with understanding, the Bay Area Puma Project has started working with local residents in La Honda to help BAPP monitor cameras and gather data so that they can see first-hand the movements and habits of mountain lions in their area. It is a model they would like to replicate in other communities.
“People have developed an appreciation for what the lions are doing out there,” says McDonald. “This way, we hope to build understanding and support for an important species we must learn to live with.”
Join Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and Pathways for Wildlife in a discussion of local efforts to protect and enhance wildlife corridors in the South Bay. The public is invited to a free movie screening of the documentary film The Cat That Changed America. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/2Qn7Bbf.