Southern San Mateo County is on track to register about four times more reported sightings of mountain lions this year than last year, but a San Jose-based conservation biologist who specializes in mountain lions says it is easy to misinterpret such data and that a sense of alarm is probably not warranted.
"Seeing more lions doesn't mean there are more lions," Rick Hopkins said in an interview.
Sightings tend to measure the interest of the public and the media, and an increase in sightings "is really kind of uninteresting from a biological perspective" and a "bad metric" on which to base animal management decisions, Mr. Hopkins said.
"They say more about humans than they do about cougars," he added.
The mountain lion population is constrained by the more or less fixed amount of forest in the 1,000 square miles of the Santa Cruz Mountains, he said.
Of that, between 700 and 800 square miles is suitable habitat. "Human dominated habitats are of limited value to cougars," he said.
A typical mountain lion patrols 70 to 80 square miles, but territories overlap and there may be four to six adults over 100 square miles, he said.
What if a lion's patrol includes, as it did recently, a nonchalant passage up the front steps and through the yard of a resident of Roan Place in Woodside? What if the lion only slightly increases its pace upon seeing the human resident?
"These are really intelligent creatures who develop their own sense of getting around," he said. "They're not terribly skittish animals. ... We have this belief that animals should be fearful of us and if they're not fearful of us, we think there is something wrong."
A recent study from New Mexico in which researchers walked up on radio-collared cougars in the wild showed that they responded aggressively about 10 percent of the time, Mr. Hopkins said.
Mountain lions also exhibit behaviors very similar to those of house cats, which may give clues as to their intentions at any given moment, according to this link.