Adorable mountain lion kittens discovered at Annadel

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Two tiny mountain lion cubs have taken up residency at Trione-Annadel State Park, where they’re being hidden away and cared for by their feline mom, one of seven cougars being tracked through the region by the nonprofit Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Living with Lions research project.

It’s the fourth litter born to one of the 15 lions that have been fitted with GPS tracking devices since the inception 2 1/2 years ago of the program under the leadership of South African biologist and big cat expert Quinton Martins.

The kittens’ first-time mother, a 3 1/2-year-old puma known as P11, only recently settled into her territory, which had been occupied previously by another tracked female found dead from natural causes Jan. 9 at around 9 years of age, Martins said.

They were discovered last month when data points on their mother’s GPS tracking device remained static for a couple of days, indicating she might be establishing a maternity den and preparing to give birth, said Wendy Coy, communications manager for Audubon Canyon Ranch.

Once Martins saw that she had moved away to scout for food — likely deer, cougars’ favored prey — he slipped in to snap a few photos and capture some footage of mom and babies, though the trio has since moved several times, as is typical.

Martins said the fluffy spotted cubs were probably about 10 days old and just over 2 pounds when he last saw them Feb. 12. They’ll spend the next year or so trailing their mother and learning from her as she hunts for them, killing food on average twice a week until her kittens are grown.

“These young cats hold the health of our shared landscape in their DNA,” Martins said. ”We look forward to sharing their story in coming months and connecting our greater community to their important role as a top carnivore.”

He and his team hope the pair will live long enough to perhaps be collared themselves one day as part of a large-scale effort to better understand the region’s apex predators, their key territories, migration routes and habitat preferences so as to support their survival.

Like most wildlife, the youngsters are extremely vulnerable to injury and death, particularly in a developed world. Their starting point is a 50 percent mortality rate even absent any human intervention, Martins said.

But juvenile mountain lions near civilization carry additional risk, especially when they disperse from their mothers and have to learn to hunt and fend for themselves, usually between about 12 and 18 months of age.

Even in the wild, they struggle during this time their own food and territory, which puts them at risk from other mountain lions. They also have to contend with obstacles like roadways, motor vehicles, rodenticides and poisons in their prey, even fencing.

In addition, there are people who want to kill them.

Though hunting of mountain lions has been banned in California since 1990, individuals who lose livestock, pets or property to a mountain lion have the right to obtain a depredation permit from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to trap and humanely kill the animal responsible — though Martins believes the only effective solution is to better safeguard whatever animal is at risk of becoming prey.

The mountain lions that are being tracked are only a fraction of those who make their home in the North Bay, he says. Killing one only makes room for another to claim its territory, potentially attracting more than one adult lion to an area to vie for the rights to it and causing social disruptions that can have an even greater impact on unsecured domestic animals.

Moreover, preservation of the cougars promotes balance in the food web and supports conservation of their habitat overall, said Martins, who has devoted much of the past three years trying to educate the public about the lions among us and how to keep their own animals safe.

Yet three young lions from the project have been slain in the past 16 months as a result of preying on unprotected domestic animals, most recently in January when a Napa County man shot and killed a young lion collared days earlier. It was killed after preying on sheep behind a short fence on successive nights.

Martins said all mountain lions, tracked or otherwise, will opportunistically kill unsecured livestock, though studies of stomach contents show deer make up the vast majority of their food.

Cyndi Shafer, natural resource program manager for California State Parks Bay Area District, lauded the program for “creating a culture in Sonoma County that knows that we do live with lions.”

But the park itself, at more than 5,000 acres, “is one of the best places for this mom to raise her babies,” Shafer said.

She said park visitors should stay on designated trails, for the safety of the wild animals and for their own safety.

“We are proud to be part of the Living with Lions project, and support research and education on these important predators in our ecosystems,” she said.

For more information about the Living with Lions project see egret.org/living-with-lions.

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