Rise in cougar encounters leads to state tracking

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Published Sunday, July 1, 2001

Rise in cougar encounters leads to state tracking

By Barry Lubarsky, SCRIPPS-MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE
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SACRAMENTO -- Dennis Frieden heard a rustling of leaves, turned and froze, paralyzed with fear.

The real estate agent from Southern California was staring at a mountain lion.

"Seeing the musculature of its head, face and neck, and knowing the animal's strength was what put the fright into me," Frieden recalled of his encounter last fall while looking at a house for sale.

The mountain lion bounded away after the brief face-off that took place in a rural neighborhood in Julian, 60 miles east of San Diego.

As more people move to the country and visit state parks, lion encounters like Frieden's are expected to increase.

Using Global Positioning System technology, researchers from UC Davis and the state Department of Fish and Game will track the normally reclusive big cats to study how they react to people encroaching on their habitat.

Park officials hope results from the study, taking place in Cuyamaca Rancho and Anza-Borrego Desert state parks near the Mexican border, will help reduce encounters between mountain lions and the more than 800,000 visitors each year.

"Historically, we have higher than average incidents than other places in the U.S.," said Jim Burke, superintendent of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which is prime lion territory with its rugged, mountainous and thick-forested terrain. The park may become a model for dealing with people and lions in other parts of California.

"Thousands of people recreate in this lion habitat annually, and there's just going to be more and more in the future," said Ken Logan, a scientist and mountain lion expert who is part of the UC Davis research team.

Researchers plan to put collars with receivers on mountain lions and use GPS satellites to track the animals to within a few feet. The collars are designed to expand as a young lion grows and not encumber their movement.

Scientists will monitor the lions' actions in response to nearby hikers, bikers or equestrians. Sometimes the researchers will intentionally approach animals to elicit a reaction.

While most incidents involve a person simply spotting a lion, very few encounters end violently -- there have been 11 documented mountain lion attacks in the past 100 years in California. A woman was killed while walking alone in Cuyamaca Rancho in 1994, and many pets in nearby residential areas have been attacked.

"San Diego County is a rapidly growing area but still one of the biologically richest," said Walter Boyce, director of the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis and coordinator of the study.

As people build homes near mountain lion habitats, changes in the landscape alter the lions' normal hunting patterns, said Steven Torres, a senior wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game.

There are other potential hot spots for encounters between lions and people in mountainous areas. In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and other edges of the Central Valley, incidents already are occurring.

In Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, data from the mountain lion study will be used by park managers to route hiking trails away from areas frequented by lions or to temporarily close trails that go near a lion's kill, Burke said.

The data from the three- to 10-year study may also help scientists understand why lions prey upon endangered bighorn sheep living in neighboring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Habitat loss, years of hunting and disease spread from domestic sheep have decimated the population. With only 400 bighorns remaining, lion predation could drive them to extinction.

Officials hope the data will help keep people from getting hurt and also will save the lives of mountain lions.

"Our goal is to get humans to change their behavior," said Lynne Sadler, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, an organization that aims to protect lions and their habitat.

Park officials and conservationists expect education to be the key to saving mountain lions. "If we are going to preserve mountain lions," Logan said, "we're going to have to learn to live with them."


End article,

I hope them researchers are ready when they approach them cougars to elicit a response. I wonder which researcher gets picked for that job, the rookie or the guy who is on the boss's black list?
 

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