Lurking fear: Mountain lions more often are overlapping with human life
When Wally Hamilton watched a mountain lion strut across his front yard earlier this week, it was the first he had seen during his eight years on Banner Mountain.
“He was just moseyin’ along,” Hamilton said.
What looked like a large Irish setter at first turned out to be a long, lanky lion that paused to sniff the garbage put out at the street. Hamilton said bears are more common on Hillcrest Drive just off of Banner Ridge Lava Cap Road, a densely populated area of acre-sized lots just outside of Grass Valley.
Yet state statistics indicate mountain lion sightings and kills have increased here since 1983, just after growth brought people into Nevada County’s forests and the big cats’ territory.
No one has ever reported a mountain lion attack here, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, but state officials said hikers and those leisurely walking around rural subdivisions in the county should be aware mountain lions are still dangerous and need to be avoided.
One such lion has been wandering around Joan Gilbert’s home on Willow Valley Road just outside of Nevada City for the past month.
Earlier this week, Gilbert found tracks from what she and neighbors believe is a male lion between her garage and home. She thinks it is the same male she saw while helping a neighbor at a garage sale about a month ago.
She was sitting at a card table at the street when she peered into her neighbor’s property about 10:30 a.m.
“I looked up and here’s this huge mountain lion walking toward the road. He wasn’t more than 50 feet from us.”
A few days later, another neighbor saw the lion while walking the dogs, Gilbert said. Yet another who is building in the area was finding fresh tracks every other day several weeks ago.
Both Gilbert and Hamilton fear for area residents, but until the lions pose a threat, there is little authorities can do.
Troy Swauger, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game, said the agency responds to mountain lion calls if they are threatening people in the wild or are inside city limits. If a mountain lion is just walking through a rural area and not bothering anything, the chances are the agency will not respond.
“They tend to move when deer herds move,” Swauger said. Gilbert said there is a large amount of deer around her property.
Male mountain lions are born wanderers, lured to deer herds, said Walter Joyce of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. While the lions usually stay in their namesake terrain, they can stray.
That explains why one lion was sighted Wednesday in an agricultural field at the north end of the Davis city limits.
“It’s not the place you would expect to see them, but they can move quite a bit. It’s not too surprising to see one anywhere in California,” Boyce said.
“Males tend to roam up to 100 square miles,” Swauger said. “They’re constantly moving within that range,” and overlap into areas of two to three females with whom they mate.
Those females have their own ranges of 25 to 30 square miles in which they raise the male’s cubs.
According to an article by Sallie Reynolds in a May/June 2000 issue of Fish and Game’s “Outdoor California,” mountain lions turned out by mothers after two years of nurturing have been known to wander until they find a place to mate and call home.
Boyce’s UC Davis center did a major study on the movement of mountain lions last year and found them wandering near homes next to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park about 35 miles from San Diego. The lions had been outfitted with electronic collars to track them.
The lions behaved in a stealthy manner, sleeping during the day at least 100 yards from trails and even farther from buildings. At night, they would cross roads, an Interstate highway, use the park’s trails and wander closer to buildings.
Few attacks on humans
Experts say mountain lions do not prey on humans and probably mistake them for deer, which may explain why most attacks in California in recent years have involved joggers on nature trails. Yet those attacks are so infrequent – 15 in 114 years with six deaths – you are more likely to be struck by lightning.
Most of the human attacks have occurred in Southern California, but one of the fatal six happened near Cool in the Auburn State Recreation Area in 1994, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
In fact, far more mountain lions are killed by humans in California than the other way around. Fish and Game statistics show 12,000 were killed for bounty from 1907 to 1963. They were hunted from 1963 to 1969 and about 2,000 have been killed legally with depredation permits since 1972.
A state proposition made them a “special protected mammal” in 1990 and off-limits to hunting, which some say is reason for increased sightings, according to Fish and Game.
There were no depredation permits issued in Nevada County during the 1970s and no recorded kills.
Nevada County Agriculture Commissioner Paul Boch speculates that most farmers in the area took care of lions themselves for many years. But they started getting permits when they learned they could get in trouble otherwise.
These days, mountain lion appearances “are a continuous thing,” Boch said.
There were still no permits issued or kills through 1982, but in 1983 and from then on, the county has notched up to seven depredation kills a year.
From 1983 through 1989, there were 10 permits issued and four kills. In the 1990s, 32 mountain lions were killed on 85 permits. From 2000 to 2003, 23 permits have been issued and 11 mountain lions killed.
In Penn Valley, county biologists had to hold a public meeting last year after mountain lions repeatedly devoured livestock, sometimes going over tall pens to get goats and dogs.
Dawn Leaming and her husband lost at least 10 sheep to a mountain lion before county trapper Eric Andow shot it in March last year. The Leamings have not had any problems since at their home near the South Yuba River, “but I’m still very cautious,” Mrs. Leaming said.
She now locks baby goats in a pen with a caged lid on it and still does not walk their property at night.
“It’s very difficult to put all the animals up at night,” Leaming said, “but you have to do it when there’s a lion around.”
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