Mountain Lions

Photo courtesy of East Bay Regional Park District

Seen here is footage of a female mountain lion and her young. The East Bay Regional Park District hopes to secure more funding in order to better capture the health of the region’s mountain lion population.

While wildlife cameras were placed in the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) a few years ago, officials are currently hoping for improved funding to continue exploring the area’s mountain lion population in better detail.

“For mountain lions in our area, there are no firm population numbers, because it’s extensive to do population numbers,” said Matt Graul, EBRPD chief of stewardship. “We rely on observational assessments, and they have put cameras in the park district to collect data, but it’s opportunistic work.”

Graul noted most of his fellow staff members who have worked for the district for years have never seen a mountain lion and public sightings are largely uncredible.

“Once we ask for more details or review photos, oftentimes, it turns out to be a large house cat or bobcat,” he said. “They’re very elusive, and they’re typically trying to avoid people.”

In the past, Graul noted cameras have picked up images of hikers passing through an area followed by a mountain lion on the same path, though no negative incident is reported, because there is no interaction.

While the state has some ballpark figures for the creatures — four to 100 square miles in respective habitats — Graul said the counties of Contra Costa and Alameda exhibited a gap of data, which prompted the investment of the first round of cameras, but the capacity at this time is still not enough to determine the population health of these predators.

“We’re interested in getting the funding to look at this in a more detailed way,” he said.

In addition to understanding population, officials are also interested in learning how different areas of the park are related.

“One goal is to create habitat connectivity,” Graul added, explaining regions are broken up by highways and the teams are invested in learning how the animals are interacting with the different sections of the park.

Steve Bobzien, EBRPD ecological services coordinator, echoed this concept.

“We hope to continue developing our understanding of population viability, ecosystem benefits and connectivity of  mountain lions in the Mount Diablo area with other regions in East Bay,” Bobzien added.  

While many areas of the park are off limits to dogs, Graul said that rule is not primarily driven by a need to protect the mountain lions but rather the kit fox species, which is unlikely to colonize if dogs are roaming the territory. However, keeping dogs out of certain areas of the park is additionally beneficial to the lions in an additional effort to protect the region’s biodiversity.

“Mountain lions don’t have the same impact as wolves,” Graul said. “But they do serve an important function in the health of the food chain present, re-establishing riparian zones and keeping the deer in balance.”

A brochure issued by park districts throughout the state further outlines the predators’ beneficial impacts on their habitats.

“They prey primarily on deer and their kills provide an important food source to many species, including other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects,” in a statement from the brochure. “Nutrients from carcasses enrich soils and benefit many plants. Because of this, the connections within and between diverse ecological communities are enhanced and strengthened when mountain lions are present.”

While the creatures are aloof, Graul said sometimes there is the anomaly, such as the case where a Cupertino child was injured by a cougar in Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in February.

“It’s very untypical behavior,” he said, applauding the child’s father’s swift action in fighting back, which scared the animal away. “In some cases, when they’re malnourished and they don’t have available prey, they might come into a certain area looking for prey.”

Graul noted most hikers need not fear a mountain lion encounter, as such encounters are rare. A larger problem is people feeding wildlife.

“Don’t be fearful, be informed,” he said. “Interactions would be very rare, but if it occurs, get big, don’t run, pick up your kid, make noise when you hike and don’t approach dead animals because it might be a predator’s interest or kill.”

For information on mountain lions, recognizing paw prints and more, visit https://bit.ly/2IB5Rsk.

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