Tracking Sonoma County’s mountain lions
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.