Environment / Nature

Mountain lions among us

There are several signs a mountain lion is close by.

Brigantino Park in Hollister closed on July 19 when an adult mountain lion (puma concolor) with a cub was sighted. Signs warning of mountain lions are posted in this and other parks in San Benito County. 

According to Ethan Shaw of sciencing.com, mountain lions are also known as cougars, pumas and panthers.

In his book “Cougar: The American Lion” Kevin Hansen, a former state and national parks ranger, says that while the cat was once found across the U.S., parts of Canada and all of Central and South America, the mountain lion is no longer found in the eastern states (except for the Florida panther, a subspecies). This cat is found throughout the Diablo and Gabilan ranges and on the San Benito County valley floors in undeveloped areas such as agricultural and grazing lands. These cats have also been spotted in housing developments that border wildland. 

Hansen says males weigh from 115 to 220 pounds and have a home range of 25 to 500 square miles. Females weigh between 64 and 141 pounds with a home range from eight to 400 square miles. 

Hansen adds that mountain lions, who have a lifespan of about 10 years, usually begin breeding at 24 months and can breed year-round, as cats are induced ovulators—meaning the act of copulation induces the release of ova in females allowing for conception. Females usually give birth every two years to one or two cubs, though it can be as high as six. Following birth, the cubs typically stay with the female for 15 months but can prolong their stay for up to 26 months.  

How can you tell if a mountain lion is nearby? Cats are ambush hunters and as such are unlikely to be seen or heard. Unless a female is traveling with young they are solitary, making it harder to spot them. The two main clues to their presence are scat and paw prints. 

As Shaw notes, “like that of many carnivores, cougar scat usually appears as a ropey, segmented cord or a cluster of dismantled chunks. The end of the cord or one of the loose segments often shows a ‘tail.’ Scat may be 5 to 9.5 inches long with a diameter of 1 inch or greater.”

He also says cougar scat reflects its carnivorous diet as it’s commonly full of hair and fragments of bone. Scat can also have grass, it may be black, brown or grayish white, and it often is pungent smelling. 

If you prefer not to analyze feces but are still keen on finding signs that a mountain lion might be in the area, look for paw prints (see images below). According to Hansen, cat paw prints are M shaped and will typically not show claw indentations.

tracks-distinction. Photo courtesy of The Orange County Register. Used by permission.

 

Comparison tracks. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks & Widlife Department. Used by permission

A third, but less likely, sign of a mountain lion is stumbling into a recent kill. This is rare as mountain lions usually move the carcass to a safe spot. One sign that a carcass is a lion kill is if it’s a species of prey: deer, elk, antelope or an animal of comparable size. Prey will have a large wound to the neck inflicted by the cat’s canine teeth. 

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, mountain lion attacks are rare. They do not typically see humans as prey. Their natural prey are animals such as deer.

The department says mountain lion attacks on humans are uncommon. “Statistically speaking, a person is one thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion,” its website states.

Since 1890, there have been few verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California, six of them fatal. In most cases, the person was alone when attacked, the department has said. The website cites 19 attacks since March 1986.

The Mountain Lion Foundation offers these safety tips to follow in areas likely to have mountain lions. 

  • Be aware.
  • Bring a friend.
  • Wear bright and highly contrasting clothing.
  • Ask park or trail personnel about recent wildlife sightings.
  • Watch for signs and trail postings.
  • Avoid jogging or mountain biking in low-light conditions at dusk and dawn.
  • Stay on the trail and check maps frequently to avoid getting lost.
  • Supervise children and keep them within arm’s reach.
  • Keep pets secure on a leash.
  • Don’t approach any wild animal.
  • Give wildlife the time and space to steer clear of you.
  • Be vigilant if you bend over or crouch down.

Mountain lions can threaten livestock and the Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends non-lethal measures to prevent harm. 

The cats’ threat to livestock is in itself a threat to them as farmers can legally, with a Department of Fish and Wildlife permit, kill mountain lions when protecting their livestock. Unlawful killing (including poaching) can also diminish their numbers. 

According to Hansen, the other main threat to this species is habitat loss. 

The mountain lion is considered a keystone species, one which other species in an ecosystem depend on. It is also an umbrella species, one which needs such an extensive range that its conservation conserves other species. 

More information from the Mountain Lion Foundation is available here.

 

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Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.