Tracking Sonoma County’s mountain lions

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In his office at Glen Ellen’s Bouverie Preserve, Quinton Martins has several collars equipped with GPS technology that he has used to track and study leopards in remote places around the world.

The South African biologist and acknowledged authority on big cats is now gearing up to track a different predator — the mountain lions that call Sonoma and Napa counties home. Audubon Canyon Ranch has hired the famed researcher to conduct the groundbreaking study, which the nonprofit agency hopes to use as the basis for protecting what remains of the habitat in which the lions and other creatures live.

Nobody knows for sure how many mountain lions roam Wine Country. That’s one key question Martins hopes to answer with his research. He said under optimal conditions, he would expect to find as many as 50 adult mountain lions living in the 1,000-square-mile territory included in the study.

The general public, however, usually only hears about the cats when something unfortunate happens, such as the rare occasion when a lion attacks pets, livestock or humans. Or, when a lion is the victim of circumstance, as was the case March 1 when an adult female was struck and killed by a motorist on Highway 116 near Monte Rio.

The less headline-grabbing, but just as compelling, story is how these beautiful and powerful animals, which can reach 220 pounds and stand 3 feet tall, have managed to survive in an increasingly urbanized environment, hunting prey (mostly deer), mating and doing their best to avoid contact with humans who are, in Martins’ words, “super-predators.”

Martins knows better than just about anyone how shy mountain lions are. He’s never seen one in the wild, but that’s not surprising. He said it took a year of arduous effort to finally spot a mountain leopard in the wilds of South Africa, where he had established a conservancy organization to protect the animals.

“I was spending every day out there hiking. They don’t want to be seen,” he said.

Now living on Hood Mountain with his wife and the couple’s young daughter, Martins expressed hope that his research into mountain lions will help foster a better public understanding of the cats and replace fear with excitement.

“I find it amazing Americans are not more jazzed that they have a charismatic and awesome animal on their doorstep,” he said.

His plan calls for trapping mountain lions in cages using road-kill deer as bait, then outfitting them with collars after a veterinarian has anesthetized them. He is awaiting approval from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin trapping.

By following the lions, researchers will be able to better understand how the cats navigate their shrinking territory, and the steps land stewards and conservationists can take to preserve and enhance their migration corridors. Given enough space, interactions between lions and people would be even more rare than they already are, but the study is about much more than mitigating those encounters.

Martins uses the scientific term “trophic cascade” to describe the ramifications of squeezing mountain lions out of their natural environment. Lions prevent overpopulation of prey species, such as deer, and encourage a balance in nature. Take predators out of the equation, Martins said, and the results range from overgrazing to catastrophic failure of the habitat.

“If you lose a key component, it has a ripple effect,” he said.

Of particular focus is the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, which links about 10,000 acres of protected land running west to east from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacmas mountains. In addition to mountain lions, deer, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the corridor.

ACR is working with the Sonoma Land Trust and other groups to protect open space within that wildlife corridor, including the site of what is now the Sonoma Developmental Center, which is slated for closure.

“One of our primary research goals is to use the data on how mountain lions actually move in the landscape to inform conservation efforts,” said Jeanne Wirka, ACR’s stewardship director.

Said Martins, “If we are able to protect lions in this area, you are looking at preserving the habitat as a whole.”

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1962 by L. Martin Griffin to protect from development a large heronry on Bolinas Lagoon near Stinson Beach. Today, the organization oversees four nature preserves in Marin, Sonoma and Lake counties that, combined, total more than 5,000 acres.

ACR officials view the mountain lion program as a natural outgrowth of their pioneering studies of winged predators. But conducting the research won’t be easy or cheap. The cost of trapping and monitoring a single cat could add up to as much as $15,000 annually, according to Martins, who has first-hand experience with the financial and logistical challenges of conducting mountain cat research.

After founding and serving as CEO of the Cape Leopard Trust in South Africa, Martins was working for the Sonoma-based Snow Leopard Conservancy when he conceived of the idea for a local mountain lion study. His 1986 Ford Ranger is still emblazoned with “Sonoma Puma Project,” the name he gave the concept.

Spotting an opportunity to piggy-back on Martins’ work, ACR officials hired him as a wildlife ecologist.

“Quinton had a project, and we had a need,” Wirka said.

A typical adult mountain lion can roam across 200 square miles. The GPS system that Martins uses to track them provides eight location readings over a 24-hour period.

At his office, Martins pulled up a webpage on his Macbook that displayed the rough outline of South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains and hundreds of red dots, each reflecting the movement of a single leopard. Clusters of dots showed where the animal had stopped for several days to consume prey.

Researchers also will monitor mountain lion movements using wildlife cameras, including those mounted inside Bouverie and at ACR’s 3,000-acre Modini Mayacamas Preserves high along a ridge in the mountains east of Healdsburg, off Pine Flat Road.

Martins trekked to the remote location recently using a narrow deer trail that wound upward through the woodland. Along the way, he found evidence of mountain lion scat alongside the path. At the ridge overlooking the valley, he checked the camera and two strobes, which are activated when animals step across an infrared beam aimed across the narrow ridge trail.

Scrolling through the stored images on the camera, Martins exclaimed in surprise at the sight of a bobcat in one of the frames, its body silhouetted against the setting sun in the background. His hope is to capture a similarly stunning image of a mountain lion that he can use to promote his research.

“Images are such a great way to communicate with the public,” he said.

The geographic area included in the lion study runs from Highway 101 east across Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacmas range to Highway 29 in Napa County, and to northeast Sonoma County. Martins said he would expect between 30 to 50 adult lions to be living within that territory, but only if the entire habitat was suited to their existence.

Vineyards, subdivisions, urban growth and other development have encroached on the wilderness. Only about half of the 10,000 acres within the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor are protected from development. In one place on the eastern side of Highway 12 near Bouverie Preserve, the corridor is a mere three-quarters of a mile wide.

Mountain lions still manage to traverse the landscape. Bouverie’s wildlife camera has captured the image of a female lion with kittens, as well as a lone male that comes down into the area from surrounding hillside stands of chaparral. In April 2014, a group of people hiking at the preserve stumbled upon two lions mating, Wirka said.

Such sightings energize Martins, but he understands not everyone shares his enthusiasm. On his desk was a book about the cats titled, “The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator’s Deadly Return to Suburban America.”

As part of the lion project, ACR officials have included a public outreach component that includes presentations at schools and to neighborhood groups, including a March 17 talk Martins is scheduled to give to the Bennett Valley Homeowners Association.

Researchers also are asking residents to contribute to the study by sharing stories of their encounters with mountain lions. The survey link is available at surveymonkey.com/r/MTLIONACR.

Using the tracking data and feedback from property owners, the researchers hope to mitigate encounters between mountain lions, humans and their pets or livestock. With some initial funding for the research, the organization hopes to garner more through corporate sponsorships, community donations and grants.

“I’m looking forward to tracking out here,” Martins said at the overlook in Modini. He then hiked down to his pickup and drove back down the mountain.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@press democrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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