Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mountain lions are efficient predators

By Terry Knight -- Record-Bee outdoors columnist
Record Bee, Lake County, CA
Article Last Updated: 8/22/2006 11:01 PM

As a lifelong hunter, I have often been asked what is my favorite wild animal. There is no question that deer rates near the top of the list. Not only are they a challenge to hunt, but few wild animals are as majestic as a big buck with his towering rack of horns. And what could be more beautiful than a flock of mallards coming into a set of decoys or a wild tom turkey in full strut?

But one my favorite wild animals is one I don't hunt and have rarely seen ... it's the mountain lion. Now I know a lot of my fellow hunters say the mountain lion preys on the very deer that hunters seek, but that's all part of nature. And besides, the mountain lion was around long before we were.

Few wild critters equal one of North America's biggest wildcats (only the jaguar is larger). Not only is a lion a deadly hunter but it's amazing that an animal as large as a mountain lion can stay hidden from view. And best of all, Lake County has a healthy population of mountain lions. You may not see them, but I'll guarantee that if you have spent any time hiking in the woods in Lake County, you have passed within a few yards of a mountain lion.

They are secretive creatures and can actually live near our backyards. Last year a biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed a Global Position Satellite (GPS) unit on a couple of mountain lions and they were released in Southern California near a park that was frequented by hikers. What the biologist found was that the tagged lions often would lay under a bush within a few feet of the hiking trail and dozens of hikers passed by without ever being aware of the cats.

Mountain lions do most of their hunting and moving about at night, which is a good reason few people have ever actually seen a lion. They often take up residence in the urban areas. In fact, mountain lions have been spotted on the outskirts of Lakeport and Clearlake.

Here are a few facts about our nocturnal neighbor:

An adult male lion may be more than 8 feet long from the tip of the tail to its nose. It will weigh between 130-150 pounds although there have been mountain lions that have weighed more than 200 pounds.

The mountain lion population in California is estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000 animals although some biologists say that number is probably closer to 20,000.

Their life span in the wild is about 12 to 15 years.

Pound for pound mountain lions are the strongest of all the big cats. A 150-pound lion can take down and kill a full-grown bull elk weighing close to a 1,000 pounds.

A lion can leap as high as 15 feet to climb in a tree and can jump from a height of more than 60 feet up without injuring itself.

Mountain lions are more successful at killing prey than all the other big cats. In comparison to the African lion, which is successful less than 20 percent of the time, a mountain lion is successful 85 percent of the time when hunting. Next to a human they are considered the top predator on earth.

Deer are their primary prey and a full-grown mountain lion will kill and eat a deer about every six to 12 days. They also kill domestic cats, dogs and even livestock. They normally attack from the rear and bite down hard on the skull or neck of the victim.

Mountain lions are mostly solitary creatures and an adult male lion will often kill any other male lion that ventures into his territory.

Mountain lions are fully protected in California. They only can be killed with a depredation permit issued by the Department of Fish and Game or to protect your life or livestock.

One reason I like mountain lions is because they are a large predator but rarely ever seen. In all my years in the woods I have only seen two mountain lions. One was spooked by my deer dog more than 40 years ago and the other I saw on Cow Mountain a few years ago.

I had been deer hunting and walked into a small clearing. There was a huge male lion sitting in the middle of the clearing. I walked to within 50 yards of him and all he did was watch me and swish his long tail. After about a minute he stood up and stretched, then slowly walked away (stopping every few steps to turn and stare at me). To be that close to a big cat was the highlight of my life.

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