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By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Local public safety agencies should work with experts on mountain lion behavior to develop contingency plans for cases when the big cats are found in residential areas, said speakers at a public forum on mountain lions held in Redwood City last week.
Such a plan might have saved the life of a mountain lion that was killed by state Fish and Game wardens after it was found in a Redwood City backyard near Sequoia Hospital on March 29. Officials said they had tried to find a way to tranquilize the animal and remove it, but were unable to do so.
In response to that incident, experts on the big cats held an educational session for the public at Sequoia High School on April 13. The event was sponsored by the Felidae Conservation Fund, which is currently studying mountain lions (also known as pumas, cougars, panthers and as many as 35 other names) with the California Department of Fish and Game and the University of California at Santa Cruz. The study is called the Bay Area Puma Project or BAPP.
While mountain lions' current range includes half the state of California, remarkably little is known about the elusive animals.
Zara McDonald, Felidae's executive director, said researchers are expanding their knowledge with projects that include using electronic tracing collars and remote cameras to study mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains. Such research has found that mountain lions may live only 20 to 30 feet off trails used by hikers and runners, but that they are so reclusive that they are rarely seen.
"We want you to understand (mountain) lions are among us," said Marc Kenyon, who coordinates the California Department of Fish and Game mountain lion program. Mountain lions are protected in California, but any lion that threatens a human can be killed. About 100 mountain lions that threaten pets or livestock are killed each year with a special depredation permit, he said.
Mountain lions are the top predators in our area, a spot they once shared with wolves and grizzly bears, Ms. McDonald said. They tend to live where there are deer, the source of between 60 and 80 percent of their diet. Mountain lions have been known to eat coyotes and bobcats.
While any attack on a human by a mountain lion is a high profile event, since 1890 there have been only 16 verified attacks in the entire state, Ms. McDonald said. The last verified mountain lion attack in the Bay Area was more than 100 years ago, in 1909, she said.
Bobcats are often mistaken for mountain lions, but bobcats are smaller. Mountain lions usually weigh between 75 and 150 pounds; bobcats are usually between 15 and 30 pounds. Bobcats are usually spotted or striped; adult mountain lines are a solid tawny color. Mountain lions have long, thick tails while bobcats have short tails.
During a question-and-answer period, some of the close to 90 people attending the meeting questioned why the Redwood City mountain lion was killed and not tranquilized.
Mr. Kenyon of Fish and Game explained that a tranquilizer dart must hit the animal in the shoulder or rump, something that was not possible with the Redwood City mountain lion because it was trapped between two fences.
What to do with a tranquilized lion is also a problem, he said. Adult lions can not adjust to captivity, he said, and relocation will usually put them in another mountain lion's territory.
"Our policy is to ensure the safety of humans," he said. "The last resort is to kill the animal -- it always has been."
In Contra Costa County, however, procedures for dealing with interactions between lions and humans have been successful, said James "Doc" Hale, vice chair of the Contra Costa County Fish & Wildlife Committee. No mountain lion has been killed in the county since the plans were developed, he said, noting that all animal services in the county have tranquilizer kits.
Redwood City Police Department Captain Dan Mulholland said his department is hoping to learn from this incident. They have a relationship with the Fish and Game department, as does the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which receives many calls about mountain lion sightings.
Captain Mark Wyss of the Sheriff's Office said that the department often calls in experts for advice on how to proceed if mountain lions are repeatedly sighted. "We had a mountain lion sighting as recently as yesterday," he said.
Sponsoring the forum on mountain lions is part of the educational work of Felidae, which also offers programs for local schools. Available to all grade levels through junior college to any school in San Mateo, Santa Clara or Santa Cruz county, the classes include a field trip, where students interact with Felidae field biologists. The program is funded by the Packard Foundation.
Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener from Woodside.