Saturday, September 30, 2006

Southern California's champion for mountain lions

By Diane O’Malley
9/29/2006 7:01:03 PM

Some may refer to Riverside County as the last enclave of open space. Development had slowly crept into the county but is now making up for lost time. Unlike Orange County, where large acreages of land are under the control of a few privately owned land development companies, the direction of development in Riverside County is still made project by project and depends on the decisions of county agencies.

Several citizen groups are actively overseeing the development when projects come up on their radar, but one activist is advocating development from the point of view of the mountain lion.

It’s a tough sell for Vicki Long, the self-described “Mountain Lion Lady,” at times when speaking on behalf of a predator, a carnivore, an animal remembered for rare encounters with humans and sometimes with tragic results. The mountain lion, or cougar, can provoke fear in some people who believe the sleek majesty of the cougar is best left behind the bars at the zoo, not roaming around Riverside County in the wild. The thought of co-existing in a cougar habitat isn’t comforting.

But with around 5,000 cougars remaining in the state of California, they are skirting the edges of the federal endangered animal list and it is feared the mountain lion population will keep dwindling and eventually die off in the state.

Long has been fascinated by the mountain lion since the late 1980s, although she has yet to see one in the wild. She got involved when a petition drive was initiated to put Proposition 117 on the ballot. It would prohibit the hunting of mountain lions in California, which was being considered by the state legislature, and provide funding for the preservation of their habitat.

She helped gather signatures in the county and the proposition was passed by voters in 1990. “That’s how I got started,” said Long. “The state made me mad.”

Since then, the funding is still in place and has helped purchase habitat and park space such as the Santa Rosa Plateau. Despite the financing, the mountain lions are still in peril as development bisects the animals’ home range as they roam from the tip of Canada to the South America. A typical territory for cougars is about 110 square miles for males and 80 square miles for females, and their territories can overlap.

It takes them about six months to cover the territory while hunting for deer, rabbits, raccoons and mice, and upon their return trip, development may have begun in their previous path.

Riverside County has developed an innovative tool which is unique in the state with the exception of Coachella Valley: to preserve open space in the county for the benefit of citizens and wildlife.

The Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) has selected approximately four wildlife crossings for protection. There is one corridor between the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve and the Pechanga Reservation, where a proposed rock quarry is undergoing an environmental review process; two corridors in the Indian Wash area between Corona and Lake Elsinore; and one corridor under the 91 freeway at Green River.

It was good in theory, but about two years ago as more and more projects began to threaten the cougar habitat, Long decided she needed an expert to study the habits of the cougar in the county and provide evidence to counter the rampant development despite the adoption of the MSHCP.

“[The mountain lion] is providing all of this money for habitat for people to hike on and it also provides for city parks,” said Long. “They are going to say they are doing this for mountain lions but it’s nothing but rhetoric — it’s not going to work.”

But why all of the fuss over a very large cat, anyway?

The mountain lion is known as an umbrella species. Take care of the “top cat” and the other wildlife will benefit from the effort, she says. “They call them an umbrella,” says Long, “because if you can save them, you just saved everything else.”

Enter the expert hired by Long prepared to battle with scientific evidence to save the animal. Dr. Rick Hopkins is a principal and senior conservation biologist with Live Oak Associates, Inc. based in San Jose. Dr. Hopkins travels all over the western United States making presentations to educate government officials, college personnel and the public about mountain lions and their needs. He is also on the board of trustees for The Cougar Fund of Wyoming, which is dedicated to protecting the natural habitat of the cougar in North America.

“We were particularly concerned about the cougar,” explains Hopkins, and the potential for its inability to function in its natural environment due to encroaching development.

The work prepared by Hopkins and Live Oak Associates is called the Riverside County Conservation Plan. The four primary goals of the study were to generate a map of remaining habitat in the county, list and rank remaining wildlife corridors that allow the cougars to roam, develop a strategy to reduce contact between humans and cougars and create a public education program.

According to Long, Hopkins and other mountain lion advocates, it is of critical importance to focus on the Riverside County.

Hopkins, a 57-year-old La Cresta resident, has been presenting the information throughout the county and feels the study has been well received. In his comments to proposed projects in the area, he has cautioned officials to consider the effects on wildlife when approving projects. “We encourage the county to not assume that the remaining linkages in this region of the county can simply be eliminated or degraded even further in the mistaken belief that other suitable linkages exist… Errors in judgment would be catastrophic and irreversible,” he wrote.

In her efforts, Long refers to the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt when she’s doing her “cougar” talk in front of county planning commissioners. Roosevelt created the US National Park System and preserved natural space during a time when most of the country was still undeveloped natural space.

“People must’ve thought he was crazy,” said Long. She tells the officials, “You need to be like Teddy Roosevelt; think like [him] and have some gumption and fortitude and forethought about what you do and how you vote on things, because people will be living with that in Riverside County in 100 years and what kind of legacy are you going to leave?”

Building on every square inch in the county is what she has seen before in Orange County and Los Angeles County and now it is happening here, she says. “It won’t be good for the people and it definitely won’t be good for the animals. It really won’t make that MSHCP work if they keep doing that.”

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