Yiwei Wang, a doctoral student in environmental studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, spoke to about 50 people at Woodside's Independence Hall on Aug. 25. She was invited to talk after numerous reports of mountain lion sightings in the area.
Only six human fatalities involving mountain lions have been recorded in California since 1890, she said, and two were from contracting rabies. Yet, mountain lions still scare people because of the association with the days when grizzlies and wolves roamed the state, and hunters were paid $20 for each mountain lion pelt.
Ms. Wang told how mountain lions — also called pumas, cougars and panthers — were hunted on the East Coast to the point of extinction. In California, they became a "specially protected mammal" in the 1970s. Still "several hundred are killed a year for depredation," she said. For example, some are shot if they go after livestock.
Ms. Wang is working on the Bay Area Puma Project, a field study that currently focuses on an area that extends from the border of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, down to Aptos and Soquel to the south, and to U.S. 101, Morgan Hill and Gilroy to the east. She estimates 75 to 100 mountain lions are living in the study area.
As of August, researchers have captured 26, tranquilized them, and outfitted them with tracking devices to study their behavior and patterns. The collars have GPS and accelerometers that provide continuous feedback. Additionally, 50 camera traps have been set up to take pictures of wildlife in action.
The goal is to find out how mountain lions are using the land developed by people, the effect of humans on males versus females, and how mountain lions and other predators interact, she said.
A few weeks ago one of the study animals was run over on Highway 17. "Several have been shot or poached, a couple hit by cars, a few died of natural causes; we're probably down to 10 with functioning collars," Ms. Wang said.
In general, mountain lions are solitary animals that sleep away a good part of the day in and under trees, then move around between dusk and dawn. As carnivores, Ms. Wang said, they will eat almost any animal, such as a pig, coyote, skunk or rat, but they prefer to dine on deer. A mountain lion eats an average of one deer per week.
Females tend to weigh between 80 and 90 pounds, whereas adult males are heavier, usually between 120 and 140 pounds. Females need about 25 to 30 square miles for their territory. Males cover 100 to 200 square miles and fight other males over turf.
Ms. Wang described the study area as "a patchwork of developed areas and open spaces." One outgrowth of her work is figuring out potential corridors for mountain lions to travel in, so they aren't so fragmented and can still find mates and hunt for food. She said discussions are under way with Caltrans to pinpoint where culverts or overpasses would be beneficial so wildlife can get under or over Highway 17.
The California Department of Fish and Game claims 85 to 90 percent of reported mountain lion sightings are false. In many cases, other animals, such as coyotes, bobcats or dogs, are mistakenly identified as mountain lions.
Mountain lions "can see us, but don't want to be seen," Ms. Wang said, pointing out that most encounters last less than two seconds.
If you do see a mountain lion, she suggests: maintain eye contact but don't approach it, run, or turn around. Instead look big, pick up children, make noise, throw rocks and sticks, and fight back if attacked.
Her advice on coexisting with mountain lions is to be smart. Don't run, hike or bike alone between dusk and dawn. Don't leave small pets or children outside unattended, particularly at night. Don't attract prey by leaving food out. Do deer-proof yards and protect livestock by putting them in secure enclosures.
Mountain lions can jump over 10-foot fences and leap up to 30 feet horizontally. Some nervous neighbors asked about keeping their horses safe. Ms. Wang said mountain lions don't usually go after them because horses can defend themselves. Goats, on the other hand are a favorite treat, and should be put in sheds overnight.
A couple of audience members asked if it's safe to walk on trails with dogs, and she responded, "if they act aggressive they've been known to tree" mountain lions.
Woodside Mayor Ron Romines mentioned that county residents may sign up to receive mountain lion warnings by going to smcalert.info.
Go to santacruzpumas.org for more on Ms. Wang's work.