Local research provides insight into the habits of these unique animals
It was standing room only at the Windsor Library as more than 60 people turned out to learn how to live with lions. Mountain lions, that is. The talk was lead by Quinton Martins, Ph.D., the principal investigator for Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Mountain Lion Project.
Martins is originally from South Africa, and is considered the world’s foremost expert on Cape Mountain leopards, for whom he set up a conservation organization, the Cape Leopard Trust, before coming to the U.S. and setting up shop to research America’s big cat.
“Hello Windsor, home of all those Nixles,” he said, garnering a laugh from the audience. “Sightings at Foothill Regional Park, red alert.”
Martins’ talk was filled with wry humor and incredible images of local cats, as well as some sobering statistics about how dire the plight of these animals is.
He started by painting a picture of Sonoma County 12,000 years ago, when the area would have been populated by all manner of megafauna, including the massive Panthera leo atrox, the American cave lion, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, as well as huge prey animals.
Rather than the apex position they now hold, the mountain lion, which was around then, lived as a secondary or even tertiary predator, just as likely to be prey as predator. Martins stated that the fact that they did not evolve as apex predators, still affects them today, including their well-known skittishness.
“They would have evolved looking over their shoulder all the time,” he said, adding that when the megafauna went extinct, a small population of mountain lions survived in South America, and then repopulated north, to 11 western states, including California. One small population moved to Florida, where it evolved in the Florida Panther subspecies, a critically endangered animal with only around 160 animals left.
“(Mountain lions) share their habitat with 14 million people,” he said. “The way the lions see it, their territory is being encroached on by people. Statistically, mountain lions are an insignificant threat to people, but a lack of knowledge leads to conflict, which then leads to dead mountain lions. Living With Lions’ goal is to use science to inform people how to connect and coexist with nature.”
He then went on to discuss the current project, which consists of capturing and putting GPS tracking collars on lions in the area, and tracking their movement and behavior. So far, 12 lions have been successfully collared and tracked, though four of them have died since the study began.
The collars stay on between 8 and 14 months before they naturally fall off, and they send a signal every two hours. When the animals are captured and collared, researchers also collect samples and measurements. Blood tests are used to determine gene flow and relationships between cats as well as the presence of toxins or poisons in their blood.
Martins showed the interested audience various images of data points from the collared cats, showing their incredible range and movement. Females have territories of around 50 square miles, while males are closer to 250 square miles and will overlap the territories of females.
Of particular interest to Martins, when considering the idea of living with lions, is that, for example, one male, P5’s territory crosses over 17,000 private land parcels. “Imagine how many people live with him and don’t know it,” he said.
He discussed the ecological role of the top predator, and the negative effect of removing them from an environment, creating an event known as a “trophic cascade,” which creates overgrazing and environmental damage due to over proliferation of prey species.
Martins also pointed out that preserving a top species creates a trickle down of environmental benefits. “If a mountain lion needs certain things to exist—land and open space, water, prey species—then ecological conservation can happen.”
Threats to Lions
Local lions face a variety of threats, and normal kitten mortality is around 50 percent. However, two issues have led Martins to ramp up his outreach activities.
The first is the fact that of 400 mountain lion necropsies performed statewide, 95 percent of those animals showed some degree of rodenticide poisoning. In fact, a famous southern California lion was found to have died from the anticoagulant found in common rodenticides. The blood work collected from local lions shows exposure to the rodenticide also.
The second is what he refers to as “how ridiculously easy it is to get a predation permit and kill a lion” following a loss of livestock or pets. In fact, two lions in the study have been killed with depredation permits.
“Its way too easy to get a depredation permit to kill a mountain lion,” Martins said. “If you have a pet gerbil and a mountain lion eats it, by law they must give you a permit.
“I’m not squeamish,” he continued. “Sometimes animals will be killed, and I don’t get to upset over individual losses. But, what I can’t stand is when a killing is senseless, and no one can give a valid reasons that killing a mountain lion for predation would be a benefit. The two reasons given are ‘It’s the law’ and that we need to ‘placate the landowner.’ Are we doing eye for an eye? If your cat, that you’ve allowed outside, gets run over in the road do you go out and shoot the driver?”
More importantly though, Martins says that eliminating one cat from the environment actually makes things worse, and increases the likelihood that livestock will get preyed on. “California has a housing issue and the cats do to,” he said. “You eliminate a cat from the environment and multiple others will try to move in, so in an area where you had one cat, you now have two or three, so the odds of a predation goes up. In addition, new cats will lack the ‘mental map’ for things like deer herds and their movements, and will be more likely to take livestock. Scientific papers show this, but still the state says ‘we need more science.’”
In fact, research shows that locally 75 percent of an average lion’s diet is made up of deer, and in fact they will bypass all other food when deer are present. Another 10 percent consist of livestock, with the final 10 percent consisting of cats, both feral and domestic and another five percent consists of a variety of other small mammals, including foxes, raccoons, skunks, rabbits and mice. While other research projects have shown they will eat dogs when necessary, no evidence of dog predation has been found locally.
Martins was also surprisingly vehement when someone asked his opinion of providing compensation to owners who have lost animals.
“Its nonsense,” he said. “As a tax payer, why should I be responsible for you choosing to have a pet? It’s your responsibility. You have chosen to live in lion habitat, you have to take responsibility for your animals and have them appropriately protected and managed. It’s an animal welfare issue.”
Living with Lions
While the program started out focused around the ACR and it’s Bouverie preserve (and thus far, all collared cats have been along the Highway 12 corridor on the east side of the county) the project is now permitted to capture mountain lions within a 1,000 square mile area of the Mayacamas Range, from the northern county line south to Highway 116, east of Highway 101 and west of Highway 128 in Napa. In addition, they are partnering with UC Berkeley on mountain lion collaring near their Hopland Research & Extension Center in Mendocino County.
In addition, they are also now permitted to collar ‘problem’ lions by request from landowners anywhere in Sonoma County.
“That message is critical to get out,” said Wendy Coy, communications manager from ACR. “If a resident loses a pet or livestock on his property, we would like the owner to call us first and within hours of the pet or livestock being killed. We will attempt to capture the lion and outfit it with a GPS collar – and avoid killing the lion. We will also work with the landowner to troubleshoot and recommend better security measures.”
Coy says the best number to call is Martins’ cell: 707-721-6560.
“When we come in to collar the lion, we’ll work with the landowner to increase security, if possible. If all security measures have been taken, we’ll work with the landowner to understand the importance of keeping that lion on the land.”
When told that what people really want to know is “Is it safe to run at Foothill Park, alone, at dawn, with my earbuds in,” Martins quickly said, “no” but then pointed out “because it’s likely that if you’re distracted and not paying attention you could trip and fall and be seriously injured, that’s the real threat. Statistically speaking, mountain lions are not a threat to humans; between 1890 and 2003 16 people have been killed by mountain lions. Last year alone 39 were killed by domestic dogs. 40,000 people a year are killed in car accidents, but you don’t think about that when you get in your car to drive to Foothill.
“Think about that earlier number 14 million people, that live every day in lion territory. If they wanted to harm humans they could, and they don’t. Which is not to say it can’t ever happen, but statistically it’s nearly unheard of,” he finished.