Friday, October 23, 2015

Sonoma’s mountain lions at a ‘pinch point’

  • A young mountain lion cub chases after its mother in this nighttime image from one of the cameras set up to photograph wildlife traveling through the Sonoma Valley. (Courtesy Sonoma Land Trust)

The first time Jeff Bundschu saw a mountain lion, he was driving his truck around the perimeter of the Bundschu family vineyard off Denmark Road, showing it off to an out-of-town visitor. “It was in a place where people usually aren’t,” he said.

Suddenly a big cat the size of a German shepherd leapt into the middle of the road, and leapt off again in a flash.“I told the guy with me it was as if he had seen a mythological creature,” said Bundschu. “I’d never seen a mountain lion in years of mountain biking back there. I don’t know if my dad ever saw one.”

The Bundschu men are not alone.“I’ve been in wildlife for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild,” said Tony Nelson, a program manager for Sonoma Land Trust. The irony is that Nelson is administering a study project to verify the prevalence of mountain lions, and other wildlife once more common to the region, as they pass though the so-called “wildlife corridor” that runs between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas, a narrow passage bisected by Arnold Drive and Highway 12.

Nelson helped set up the ongoing project to document the passage of animals though this corridor – not only mountain lions but bobcats, coyotes, deer, “everything from gray squirrels and bigger.”

Every so often, one of the cameras Nelson has positioned in the least inhabited parts of the Sonoma Valley “captures” a mountain lion inits frame – and, on at least one occasion, a rare shot of two of North America’s native big cats in one image.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t all around us. Though they are solitary to the point of secretive, estimates suggest there are about 3,000 in the entire state, with a density of maybe one cat every 10 square miles or even fewer. Males are far more reclusive and wide-ranging than females; more than one cat is rarely seen at once, unless they are juveniles or a mother and cub.

Which makes Tim Harsch’s story all the more unusual. He was visiting a friend in the Diamond A neighborhood and left for home after dark just two weeks ago, about 9 p.m. “I saw two of them bounding down the hill as I drove down Grove,” said the San Mateo resident. “They ran right in front of me for probably 200 meters while I drove at about two miles an hour to keep them in my headlights. I was just amazed.”

Mountain lions are also known as cougars, pumas, panthers, and catamounts, or sometimes just the American lion. It’s the world’s fourth largest cat, behind only the African lion, Asian tiger and the South American jaguar. They can measure almost three feet at the shoulder, and over seven feet in length from nose to tail. Males can easily weigh well over 100 pounds – 137 is the average – while females are smaller, averaging 93 pounds.

The battery-powered cameras the Sonoma Land Trust uses are motion-activated, shooting color images in daylight but using an infra-red flash at night which creates an eerie glow. The images are stored on a flash card in the camera, and the cards are swapped out, and batteries changed, every couple weeks.

Not just cougars have been photographed, of course – there are bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and lots of deer. In fact the cougar’s primary food locally is deer, and it could be said where you see deer you may very well find mountain lions.“We used to see them mostly in Diamond A, but also Sonoma Mountain and Cavedale,” said Valley resident Aaron Brumley via Facebook. “We used to do a lot of off-trail hiking back then.”

What makes the Glen Ellen area of the Valley so important is that it seems to be one of the only viable passages left between the coastal wildlife region that includes Point Reyes and the Marin/Sonoma coast, extending all the way to Sonoma Mountain; and from there across Sonoma and Napa counties into the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area – recently protected by the Obama White House as a national monument.“Those are considered core blocs for wildlife habitat,” said Nelson. “Wildlife needs to move between them for genetic flow, to find new habitat,” especially when juvenile mammals are moving away from their “matron” and looking for a habitat of their own. “That’s what this corridor is.”

But environmental scientist Conrad Jones of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game) questions the whole notion of a “wildlife corridor.” He explains that their travel routes “have been relegated to what people call ‘corridors,’ but there used to be a choice of routes that they could have taken.”

In other words, before humans built settlements, farms, factories, roads, housing developments, cities and towns, all wildlife – including mountain lions – had a wide-open choice of how they could get across the landscape, and a much wider choice of where to live. Now, they travel where they can - in an increasingly narrow “pinch-point.”

Rich Little will never forget his sighting, up the road to the Little Family Winery off Highway 12 just east of B.R. Cohn. “Suddenly this big old lion leapt across the road in front of me. It’s a two-lane drive, but he just flew across it in a single jump. It was so strong, I thought it was flying.”

That the wildlife of the Sonoma Mountain area crosses the Valley here may have a great deal to do with the undeveloped open-space areas surrounding the Sonoma Developmental Center, and similarly protected areas of Sonoma Valley Regional Park, Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Land Trust’s Glen Oaks Ranch and Bouverie Preserve on the far side of Highway 12, adjacent to the Mayacamas.

One of the most immediate concerns of wildlife advocates is the fate of the Sonoma Developmental Center property, in the heart of that so-called wildlife corridor. “If it’s fully developed, or goes into any number of intensive land uses, the corridor will probably be cut off,” said Nelson. “There could be a number of repercussions.”

One of them would be that more cougars and other wildlife wander into more developed areas, looking for a safe passage. The number of human/lion contacts would likely increase; and while hunting mountain lions is illegal in California, and road-kill cougars are rare, they are not unknown – and there’s evidence suggesting an increase in road-kill that some ascribe to animals looking for water in drought-struck California landscape.“Road are typically a significant barrier to wildlife,” said Nelson. “Not only are they dangerous and result in animal-vehicle collisions – dangerous for animals and humans, that is – but a lot of species will typically avoid them, because they’re a frightening thing.”

Knowing there’s wildlife in the hills that you can’t see is one thing. Knowing that they’re gone is quite another. 

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