There’s been a lot of talk of mountain lions lately. There were two sightings near UCSC on January sixth, and on the 30th there was a mountain lion in downtown Santa Cruz. There have been multiple sightings on my own road in Ben Lomond over the past few months, and there was even a woman in Boulder Creek whose goat was killed by a mountain lion. Community sightings prompted SLVUSD superintendent Laurie Bruton to close Fall Creek to SLV students and staff for some time.
The are clearly mountain lions around, but are they a danger to us?
According to Yiwei Wang, researcher for the UCSC Puma Project, no. “In California, all of the records and reports from the past 125 years indicate that mountain lions are one of the last things you should fear. More people die from collisions with deer, shark attacks, bee stings, lightning strikes, dog attacks, and even toothbrushes than from mountain lions. Basically, 6 people have died from mountain lion attacks in this state since 1890.”
There are several possible explanations for the increased sightings. One is that increased awareness of mountain lions and news of sightings made people more likely to notice and report mountain lions. “When people are more aware of something, they tend to notice it more,” says Yiwei. If there is in fact an increase in local mountain lions, it could be because an alpha male died recently. Male mountain lions are solitary and very territorial, occupying between 10 and 370 square miles each (according to Defenders of Wildlife). “Removing an adult male opens up an attractive piece of territory and young males will move in and it will take several months or years to establish dominance.” It is ironic that a human killing a mountain lion is the most likely cause of an influx of mountain lions into human territory.
Such killings can take form of car accidents or shootings by frightened land-owners, and are the greatest risk to the lives of mountain lions, along with losing connection to other habitats, a situation also cause by human constructs. Fortunately, educating people reduces fear and killing of mountain lions, and efforts such as the highway 17 wildlife crossing are working to reduce habitat loss (If you haven’t read Lydia Bashor’s article about the 17 wildlife crossing, pick up a February article and go do that.). Fortunately, according to Yiwei “The Santa Cruz Mountains has a healthy population of mountain lions.”
Sure you’re statistically more likely to die from a toothbrush than a mountain lion, but this doesn’t mean they are tame or harmless. If you come across one you should make yourself look as big as possible, make noise, and throw sticks and rocks if necessary to scare it off. Do not approach a mountain lion, and DO NOT turn around or run away if you see one.
In conclusion, let’s all appreciate our good fortune in living in respectful coexistence with such great, majestic animals. Go cougars!
(note: The names “puma”, “cougar”, and “mountain lion” all refer to puma concolor, a beautiful 135 lb cat native to nearly all of North and South America. I’m most familiar with the name “mountain lion,” but all are used, and all are valid.)