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Lions? Bears? Bobcats? Urban sightings elicit thrill, alarm

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From a black bear ambling through the urban Santa Rosa streets on a Sunday morning to a mountain lion that made a brief appearance near a trampoline in a Sebastopol backyard just weeks later, recent wildlife sightings have thrilled and alarmed residents across Sonoma County.

Many have expressed surprise over the presence of such large predators amid populated places, though wildlife officials say it’s merely a fact of life in the region. Wild animals have moved amongst us for millennia, but they have become a sensation as images of their daily lives proliferate on social media.

“Everyone loves to live in a green, wildland setting, but along with that type of living space, there are occupants that are already there,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Specialist Conrad Jones. “They come and they go, but they’re there.”

Both animals are predators — lions are carnivores and black bears omnivores. But their appearance in town shouldn’t necessarily be cause for alarm, Jones said. People should avoid the temptation to approach wildlife, he said. Trash and food should be kept out of reach of hungry critters. Pets and livestock should be kept in secure enclosures.

And drivers should be vigilant as wildlife traverse roadways built through their habitat, Jones said. Motorist Colin Putney of Lake County was reminded of that obligation Tuesday afternoon in a flash of black fur that appeared before him as he drove around a corner of Highway 29 near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

Putney, 45, was headed to his job as a manager at Calistoga’s Bergson Hotel about 1:30 p.m. when a black bear ran down a hill and crossed in front of his car, he said. He hit the bear with the front right panel at about 50 mph, with his car coming to a stop 100 feet away.

“I was choking on smoke from the airbag and thinking ‘I’ve got to get out of this car in the middle of the road, I can’t get it started,’” said Putney, who has a scrape and bruises. “The next thing that went through my mind was ‘Is the bear OK? I felt really terrible — it was really, really hard for me. I’m a big animal lover.”

A state Fish and Wildlife official said the bear was limping but foraging for food before wandering away. Though bears are typically more active at night, it’s not uncommon to see them in daylight hours, Jones said.

It’s not clear just how many bears and mountain lions are in Sonoma County, and the total amount of reported sightings fielded by the Department of Fish and Wildlife through its online reporting system and by phone isn’t known, and many can’t be confirmed, Jones said. The recent reported sightings in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and at a park in Windsor and have not been confirmed by the agency or the county’s wildlife specialist.

Mountain lions have ranges of up to 200 square miles, Jones said. One male was tracked by scientists roaming across 17,000 parcels of private and public lands, said Audubon Canyon Ranch wildlife ecologist Quinton Martins, principal investigator for the Living with Lions Project. The project is intended to identify priority habitats and key wildlife corridors and to promote ecosystem conservation. He’s placed tracking collars on seven mountain lions so far, and his research shows the animal’s diet is about 75 percent deer.

“Do we have deer in our cities? Absolutely … even in our modern age, lions are still lions,” Jones said. “They’re extremely secretive and they appear in places we might not necessarily expect them. They’re like ghosts. They travel most times at night, though not exclusively.”

They prefer corridors of cover, riparian zones in oak and woodlands, which can extend down to or nearby cities, Jones said. Adult mountain lions might push younger animals out of their territory, sending them in search of new habitat, when they may make an appearance in a more visible settings, Martins said. Fences aren’t a deterrent, and research has found that mountain lions can use them to trap prey.

During the summer, more people may be out at dusk when mountain lions are active, he said. Still, sightings are rare, and threatening encounters even more unusual.

“It’s more a case of them being lucky to have had the sighting,” said Martins, who is partnering with UC Berkeley to expand his research project into parts of Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties.

Spotting a black bear in a local city is rarer still, said Meghan Walla-Murphey, an Occidental-based wildlife tracker and ecologist. The black bear reportedly spotted June 24 just south of West College Avenue, near the Cal Fire Santa Rosa Fire Station was likely wandering on its way to a more natural locale, she said.

“It could have been a bear following its nose,” she said.

“It found itself in a city … it’s not pleasant for them, it’s crazy, it’s hectic.”

For more than a year, Walla-Murphey has been working with regional and state parks, state Fish and Wildlife and nonprofits to craft a bear education program. That includes outreach about keeping trash inaccessible for bears.

“It’s all about creating a bear culture in Sonoma County so people are aware and keeping the ship tight,” she said.

Jones said bears in the past five to 10 years are in areas where they previously have not been seen, including Guerneville, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. He speculated that could indicate a southward range extension, though he and Walla-Murphey said it’s hard to say why that may be happening.

Mountain lions have been spotted across the county, though not as frequently in southwest regions, Jones said.

Warren Pierce, who lives on 5 acres in the hills of northeast Santa Rosa off St. Helena Road, was overjoyed to catch a lion on camera for the first time in his three years there. He put up a trail camera about 50 feet from his deck and captured images of a mountain lion June 27.

“I wish I’d seen it in real life,” he said. “It’s amazing. They’re beautiful animals.”

During the spring and summer season, many wild animals are on the move and can be spotted frequently, said state Fish and Wildlife spokesman Peter Tira. Five Sonoma County regional parks have cameras, which recently have captured images of skunks, gray foxes, mountain lions, black bears, black-tailed deer, opossum, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons, Deputy Director Melanie Parker said.

There have been no recent local reports of injuries to people by bears or mountain lions, Jones said. In California from 1986 to 2014, there were 12 nonfatal attacks on humans by mountain lions and three fatal attacks, none of which took place in Sonoma County, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Black bear attacks are “extremely rare” in the state, the agency said. A more familiar interloper — coyotes — can pose a problem for attacks on pets, Sonoma County’s Wildlife Specialist Jeff Furlong said. Sightings are reported daily, and he encouraged residents to put away pet food and water.