Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009
(01-11) 04:00 PST Davenport, Santa Cruz County --
The tired, sweaty trackers scrambled up a steep, muddy slope in a remote canyon in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the towering madrone tree where the hounds were barking.
Poised on a thick, bare branch on a brilliant day in late December was a panting, snarling mountain lion.
"There she is, straight up above us," said Paul Houghtaling, a 33-year-old researcher for the Bay Area Puma Project, as he dug his boots into the soft leaf matter on the nearly vertical hillside.
The muscles in the tawny lion's back legs rippled 30 feet above him. The cougar's mouth was open and her nose was working, sniffing, perhaps, for her cub, which had darted off in another direction.
Led by researchers from UC Santa Cruz, the project is the first attempt to track Bay Area mountain lions, which are being seen in greater numbers as urban areas spread into the region's wildlands.
For the next three years, the team will track their behavior and movements in the Santa Cruz Mountains - including mating habits, favored prey, survival needs and travel routes. Researchers hope to expand the study for several more years after that to include the Diablo Range and the North Bay.
The 90-pound cat turned her gaze from the dogs to the humans, staring first at Houghtaling, then at each of the other five humans as they clambered into view on this brilliant sunny day just before the New Year.
"It is an intense feeling to be in the presence of such a powerful animal," Houghtaling said. "I think they feel somewhat safe being in a tree, but they know they are cornered and they are looking for a way out. I feel a sense of awe and also a sense of responsibility that the animal is being captured and collared for a good reason - namely, that we are increasing our understanding of them and contributing to their long-term conservation."
The researchers were after the mother lion because they wanted to replace a device called an accelerometer in her collar. The specially designed gizmo, which uses software similar to that found in interactive video games, will allow researchers to plot movements like running, stalking, pouncing or even mating at any given time.
Since May, four mountain lions - two males and two females - have been captured, darted and fitted with collars that have Global Positioning System devices and an accelerometer. The other female recently lost her collar during a violent struggle with a deer, the remains of which were later found along with the collar.
Chris Wilmers, the lead investigator for the project, said the data from collars - which can be retrieved every couple of weeks using a remotely triggered radio uplink - will be used to calculate daily calorie consumption and energy demands. The ultimate goal, he said, is to determine how vulnerable pumas are to environmental and habitat disturbance.
"We want to find out what effect fragmentation of habitat has on their ability to persist in these landscapes," said Wilmers, an assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. "What's really novel here is that we are asking how habitat fragmentation interacts with the actual physiology of the animal. It is important information from the Bay Area's standpoint if we are going to save mountain lions and keep them out of trouble."
The group tracked the cougar on old logging roads in mountains near the coastal town of Davenport using a handheld antenna, which would beep when pointed in the direction of the GPS device in the animal's collar.
They bushwhacked through dense brush into a heavily forested ravine known as Little Creek. State Fish and Game Department tracker Cliff Wylie released his three hounds as soon as they began baying, indicating they had picked up the scent. The dogs quickly located the buried head and leg of a deer, all that was left of a fresh kill.
Finding the big cat would be harder. The elusive predator doubled back and took the dogs on a long, circuitous route up and down gullies, through thick forest, across the creek and up a ravine. She eventually tired out, scampered up the steep slope and scaled the tree.
Standing there high on the limb and backlit by the afternoon sun, she looked wary and curious, like a house cat spying interlopers from the top of a fence. Her paws were black with mud from the long chase in the lush, wet, leaf-strewn canyon.
"She's a pretty crafty cat, doubling back like that," Houghtaling said.
The stress from the chase is probably good for the lions, Wilmers said, because it teaches them to avoid humans. It is also good for them to have a healthy fear of dogs, a natural enemy going back thousands of years, he said.
Wilmers, who studied wolves in Montana, said wolf packs will attack and kill mountain lions when they see them. Although a puma will prey on small dogs and might occasionally turn on a lone hound, it will almost always climb a tree to get away from two or more pursuing dogs, an apparently hardwired response to canines.
Wilmers estimates that there are 21 female lions, seven males and 42 kits in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The cougar in the tree gave birth to as many as three kits, but only one remains, a 60-pound male juvenile who is almost ready to strike out on his own.
Female lions spend most of their time in one area searching for food and taking care of their young, Wilmers said. The bigger males, which can weigh 150 pounds or more, roam through their territory protecting their turf from other males and searching for as many mates as they can find.
A GPS map of one of the male lions showed that he had established a home base 17 miles long and 8 miles wide, stretching from Wilder Ranch State Park to Scotts Creek. The other male roams from Scotts Creek north into Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The females in the study are based just east of Davenport and in Big Basin.
The two males have been photographed feeding on a meat lure next to the same infrared motion-sensing camera on the edge of their respective territories. Researchers wonder if the Santa Cruz mountain males are being forced to be more tolerant of one another because their habitat is shrinking.
Development is undoubtedly a big problem in lion territory.
In one 15-day period, one of the males twice went through suburban neighborhoods, but Wilmers said the cougar traveled at night through undeveloped lots, apparently only to get from one place to another.
Wilmers said the valley near the Coyote Reservoir and agricultural land east of Gilroy are the only places where mountain lions could get to the Hamilton Range and other adjacent woodlands and mountains. Housing developments have been proposed in both areas.
Several mountain lions have been run over recently while trying to cross Highway 17.
"We've got to think about how we maintain connectivity between these areas so that animals can get from one place to the other," Wilmers said. "It may be that they only use these corridors to pass through, but if you close them off, you cut off a lot of their habitat."
The mother lion was lucky on the day in late December. Wylie, the Fish and Game tracker, determined that he could not dart the animal because of the possibility of her taking a long fall down the cliff underneath the tree. The group leashed the dogs and pulled back, allowing the wily feline to slip away and meet up again with her cub.
"That's just the way it goes," Houghtaling said. "It's a tricky situation. We'll just try it again and eventually we'll get her."
Attacks on humans
There have been 16 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California since 1890, including six deaths. The fatal attacks include:
-- January 2004: Mark Reynolds, 35, was killed during a mountain bike ride at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County. The amateur racer's partially eaten remains were found after the same lion later attacked a female rider, who was saved by fellow riders who drove the lion off as it tried to drag her away.
-- December 1994: Iris Kenna, 56, was attacked and killed while hiking alone near Cuyamaca Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County.
-- April 1994: Barbara Schoener, 40, was attacked, killed and partially eaten by an 80-pound cougar while jogging on a trail in the Auburn State Recreation Area in the Sierra foothills.
California's dwindling cougars
-- Mountain lions, known scientifically as Puma concolor, are members of the Felidae family of mammals, and are called by more names than any other cat - including puma, panther, catamount and cougar, depending on the region.
-- There are about 5,000 pumas in California, according to state Fish and Game Department estimates, but the predators are so elusive and shy that there are few accurate counts.
-- Thousands of the big cats were killed between 1907 and 1963, when bounties were offered for shooting them. In 1920 the estimated cougar population in California was 600.
-- Cougar hunting was banned in California in 1990 when the animals were given special protected status. They cannot be legally killed except when they prey on pets and livestock or when declared a threat to public safety.
-- An average of about 112 cougars are killed in the state each year, including one that strayed into a Palo Alto neighborhood in 2004 and was shot to death. Researchers believe the conflicts are the result of human incursions into mountain lion territory.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org