Population growth, habitat loss bring cougars closer to humans

Just the thought of coming face-to-face with a real, live mountain lion is enough to raise the pulse and blood pressure of most people, and in fact, more people have been spotting them on the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain.

The animals have popped up in such unlikely places as downtown Sebastopol last Thursday and downtown Berkeley this spring, and few people haven't heard of at least some neighbor or friend of a friend who's had an encounter with California's top predator, next to humans.

The number of mountain lions (puma concolor) roaming Sonoma Mountain has been steadily increasing since hunting them was banned by public referendum in 1990, but loss of habitat and the ability to get from one preserve to another are causing problems for people who live near wild lands and the big cats.

More than 12,000 were killed while California offered a bounty on them from 1907 to 1963 — more than any other state — until then-governor Ronald Reagan signed a hunting moratorium. Voters made the ban permanent in 1990 with Proposition 117, passed by a 52 percent majority.

Solitary by nature and reclusive by habit, mountain lions are the apex predator wherever they live (aside from humans), subsisting on deer, moose, elk, mountain goats and smaller mammals such as rabbits, raccoons, skunk and even mice when they're handy. They will also take livestock and pets on occasion. Human deaths from mountain lion attacks are extremely rare.

Linda High, a long-time sheep rancher at the 2,000-foot elevation of Sonoma Mountain, has lost up to five sheep at a time, in recurring incidents over the past several years. She has seen big cats in the road and driveways on several occasions.

While she admires wild animals and detests trapping and killing them, the continuing predation left High no choice but to call in a trapper from California Department of Fish & Game, who eventually trapped and killed a male, female and two cubs.

Multiple kill sessions are not typical for mountain lions. "A young male will come in and slaughter five or six animals in one night," High said. "You have carnage between the house and barn, even near a fenced area. The barn doesn't protect them in any way."

Another neighbor, who preferred not to be identified, said, "I don't think the lions are good or bad, but things are happening at a frustrating level as to how we protect our animals. I have these animals and it's my job to protect them. I feel helpless when I come home and find them dead."

Zara McDonald, a conservationist and expert on mountain lions, said that multiple kills are rare, but they do happen.

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