Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lion About

3 legs and a tail

I saw my first mountain lion in the wild on a recent Saturday. I was home getting the house ready for painting and the phone rang about noon. It was one of the supervising rangers. A mountain lion had been reported in a tree in one of the preserves. We quickly exchanged facts. Rangers were on the way to confirm the sighting and determine a response. I reported the gut pile I found in the creek at the same preserve the day before, probably from a mountain lion kill of a deer. I agreed to meet the rangers at the preserve in 20 minutes to evaluate the situation. An advantage of living on the Dipper Ranch, the backside of one of the open space preserves, is even during off-hours the rangers can easily reach me and I can get to most of the preserves in a short period of time.

I leaned over and turned on my dispatch radio and then flew about the house grabbing my field notebook and pack. By the time I headed out the door, I heard the call come over the radio, "Animal located in tree above trail." The rangers' voices were low and their words were clipped. I thought, "This is the real thing." We get many reports of mountain lions that turn out to be bobcats, coyotes, foxes or house cats. Even when they are correctly identified, mountain lions quickly slip away in the presence of humans like tawny ghosts. Every few months, I see evidence that mountain lions live in the Santa Cruz Mountains (deer kills, tracks, large scat with scrape marks), yet they are so secretive, I had never actually seen a mountain lion roaming these hills. My hands were shaking as I unlocked the Dipper Ranch gate and I reminded myself to slow down and drive carefully on these winding country roads with weekend cyclists and beach-bound traffic.

When I got to the parking lot, I radio-ed in for permission to enter the preserve. I passed one ranger moving people out of the preserve, and he pointed me in the right direction with a few words. I knew the trail well and had just been there the day before. I turned down the volume on my radio and strained to catch sight of the rangers while keeping my steps controlled, searching the forest up and down, and calming my breath. Through the trees, I finally spotted the reflective "Ranger" tag across someone's jacket. I cleared my throat to let them know I was there and they pointed.

The day before, we discovered intestines in the creek.

Forty feet up a black oak tree, 4 large furry legs dangled to each side of a deciduous branch. Make that 3 legs and one long, fat tail. The lion was resting in speckled light with its head away from us. We could detect some slight movements of its head, but mostly, it seemed to be sleeping. We were speaking in low voices and I was fumbling between binoculars and camera. I quickly realized the nap tree was near the gut pile I had seen the day before, and it was likely the lion could see its deer carcass from its high perch. Lions usually pull the guts out of a deer and set them neatly aside before feasting on the carcass. The gut pile I had seen in a creek had probably washed down in recent rains from a deer carcass further uphill. Lions often feed on a kill, then partially bury or otherwise hide the remaining carcass for subsequent feeding over the next few days. They may stay in the area of the kill. This lion seemed to be sleeping off a meal in view of its stash, and was likely to stay in the area for a while.

Big animal napping camouflaged in tree.

We decided to continue getting all visitors out of the preserve and close it until the lion was done resting so close to a popular trail. The supervising ranger was on the radio directing other rangers to clear all trails and post warning signs. He contacted dispatch to notify adjacent park managers and communicate with the California Department of Fish and Game. Everything was going very smoothly even though we were simultaneously thrilled to see a nonthreatening mountain lion and concerned to avoid any type of human-lion conflict.

Eventually, the lion lazily raised its head and looked over its shoulder at us. It didn't seem very concerned about the small group of people way below it, watched for a few moments and then turned and rested its head pointed in the other direction. We could see its ears still on alert but the rest of the body remained relaxed. Nevertheless, we pulled out of the area to give it more room and to allow us to talk freely.

Telephoto lens - we were NOT that close.

We work with the California Department of Fish and Game to keep people safe in the outdoors but also protect the wildlife. This mountain lion was not acting aggressively towards people and was exhibiting normal behavior for a large predator (eat, sleep). In this case, because the lion was likely to stay near the assumed carcass, and that happened to be close to a busy trail, it was best to get the people out of the way to avoid any conflict. As one of the state wildlife managers frequently tells me, it is easier to talk to people than to wildlife. We decided to leave the preserve closed for the rest of the day. We would check it early the next morning, and if there were any signs of the lion or the carcass near the trail, we would keep the preserve closed. We made sure that we were following the steps outlined in our animal response protocol, had informed all relevant parties, and were clear on our assignments.

A night hike at the Driscoll ponds

Excited and relieved, I left the preserve to escort a night hike into a new preserve. That hike was about little things, frogs and newts, and it was a beautiful evening to be outside. Still, the outdoors had an edge to it after seeing a mountain lion casually occupy its territory.

The next morning, we assembled in the preserve parking lot again. A neighbor 1.5 miles away had seen a mountain lion cross through their yard near dawn. This neighbor was very familiar with wildlife and had previously seen lions, so we were confident this was an accurate report. We did not know if this was the same lion we had seen in the tree, or the other half of a pair of lions that had been irregularly reported in the general area over the past few weeks.

Alert deer at the preserve the next morning

We checked the nap tree and the lion was gone. As a group, we slowly checked all nearby trails, peering through underbrush and looking up more frequently than we are accustomed. With no signs of the lion or a carcass, we reopened the preserve later in the morning with notices posted at all trailheads that a mountain lion had recently been observed in the preserve.

I went to the field office to document the sightings and made a round of phone calls. I was fortunate to reach the person who originally reported the lion on Saturday. He had been hiking with his 5-year old son when they looked up to see what the ravens were screaming about. Without the ravens' ruckus as they harassed and scolded the lion-in-a-tree, the hikers would have never noticed the lion. The lion was lazily waving a tail or paw towards the ravens but seemed mostly intent on napping. Although intrigued, the hiker headed back to the parking lot with his son close to him. He passed and warned another pair of visitors and then called the emergency contact number posted in the parking lot. He clearly described the sighting to the dispatcher so that the rangers readily found the same location when they arrived a short time later.

I complimented the observer as he had responsibly and safely responded to the situation and quickly reported it. We discussed his son's reaction - he was excited to report his hiking adventure to his kindergarten friends. I reviewed mountain lion safety tips with them and asked that they share these with his buddies. I also directed them to the Keep Me Wild section of Fish and Game's website that gives tips on how to interact with wildlife safely and respectfully.

While I was writing up that report, the rangers called me on the radio about a mountain lion sighting at another preserve near Horseshoe Lake and in the vicinity of the dawn report. The reporting party was in the parking lot. I asked them to wait and drove 5 minutes down the road. The reporting party described seeing a cat cross a clearing between a restored oak forest and the lake, so we took a walk in that direction. She had entered the preserve a few hours earlier to observe birds for the Audubon Great Backyard Bird Count, and had noticed the bright yellow notice at the trailhead about a recent mountain lion sighting in the area. Shortly after starting her hike, she spotted a brown, long-legged cat and in her binoculars watched it saunter towards the trees. She did not see the tail but thought it was just the angle of her view. Curious, she originally hiked in the direction of the cat, but as she got into the heavy trees, she became nervous and walked around the lake in the other direction.

Over the next hour, she recorded the birds she saw in her field notebook, but did not see any further signs of the cat. When she got back to the parking lot she saw a ranger and reported her sighting. When I arrived, I listened carefully to her description, reviewed safety precautions and thanked her. As with many reports, it was impossible to tell whether she had actually seen a mountain lion or not, but we keep records because it is often the pattern of multiple reports that best reveals behavior of these furtive animals.

As she got into her car, I remembered I had photos of the dangling lion on my camera. I showed them to her hoping to elicit a response on the lion's appearance compared to her observation. She was astonished by the size of the tail in the photograph, but seemed ready to go home after her morning adventures. After she left, I wrote up a few notes and then slowly headed out of the preserve when suddenly I saw movement at the location she originally reported the cat. I immediately stopped the car and pulled out my binoculars. No question, it was a bobcat - short 3" tail, stripes and spots on its underside and the inside of its long legs, fur flaring out in the cheek area, and the typical slow, saucy walk of a 'bob'.

Over the next few days, we continued to get reports of mountain lions. This is typical whenever we post signs regarding mountain lion sightings or when the local media covers a mountain lion story. Although some of the reports were reliable (large-sized cat tracks, certain descriptions), based on our previous experience, many others were probably cases of excited misidentification. Nevertheless, we listen carefully, ask clarifying questions and keep records. As long as the sighting is brief and the animal's behavior is nonaggressive towards humans, it's a fact of interest but does not require any action.

The presence of mountain lions in the proximity of humans tends to be controversial. I've waited over a week to write about this event to give me time to think. I was excited to see the lion myself. Everyone we talked to about the event was excited too. Probably because we had photos and had witnessed a mountain lion doing mountain lion things in its own habitat. A habitat we try to share respectfully with local critters. Most of the time we only hear the predator/human conflict stories, sometimes exaggerated. It's great to have examples of lions living their lives in ways that don't threaten or upset humans.

So I decided to share this simple story of a local lion lying about. So you can be hopeful. Also, so I can share these important tips:
  • Do NOT run from a mountain lion. Running could trigger an attack response from a mountain lion. Stand tall, raise your hands above your head, throw rocks or sticks, and shout.
  • In the very unlikely event you are attacked by a mountain lion, FIGHT BACK. People have survived by punching, scratching or kicking an attacking lion. My favorite story is a biologist who was writing in her field notebook when she was attacked. She stabbed the lion in the face with her wimpy pen and it left. Lions are stealth predators. They creep up on a deer, suddenly pounce on it and between the force of their leap and their accurately placed canines severing the spine, their prey usually collapses and quickly dies. They don't expect a fight and will often leave if there is any struggle.
  • Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare. There have been no documented attacks of mountain lions on humans in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 1909. There have been 16 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California since 1890, six of them fatal.
If Dr. Grace Augustine, the biologist in the movie Avatar, had been carrying a field notebook and writing implement, maybe her fate would have been different.

See Also:
  • Mountain Lion Foundation - As an advocacy group, they have opinions on hunting, regulations, etc. Nevertheless, the website has good information on mountain lion biology, and how to protect your pets and livestock when you live in mountain lion territory.
  • Bay Area Puma Project - researchers tracking mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Great photos of recently collared local mountain lions.


  1. This is such an exciting story! Just don't let mom read it--she might come out there and drag you back to Minnesota, where the wildlife seems a little less wild.

  2. Never fear. I have been trained in evasive actions around mammal mamas.

  3. What a great post. I agree, don't tell your mother. I encourage my mom's belief that I only encounter friendly species like amphibians. No reason to excite her.

    What impressed me the most--- the decision to leave the mountain lion alone and to close the preserve. It's a tricky balance, mixed use.

  4. Well Cindy it’s about time you got to see one. Good for you.
    Here are the images from the capture of Half Tail (13-F) in Sierra Azul on 1-11-10 boy that’s a day I will never forget. David


    And don’t forget


  5. Thanks for the link, David. Trish's photos are amazing; you're looking really rugged out there. Guess you found the right career. Why is she called Half-Tail?


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