American lion. Catamount. Fire cat. Panther. Puma.
An impressive geographic range spanning from Southern Canada to the southernmost portions of Argentina and Chile has earned the mountain lion countless monikers throughout history. Regardless of name, however, local wildlife officials want Bay Area residents to respect this graceful predator and remain cognizant of the cats living within Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, which borders Los Altos.
“We’ve had an ongoing issue with a mountain lion for about a year and a half in Rancho San Antonio, so we’re closely tracking mountain lion activity out there,” said Matthew Chaney, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District resource management specialist, in an interview last week.
A popular YouTube video sparked Midpen’s vigilance. On Nov. 1, 2015, a Rancho jogger recorded footage of a young female mountain lion killing a buck off Upper Wildcat Canyon Trail during daylight hours. The predator’s unusual behavior – mountain lions are most active between dusk and dawn – prompted the Midpen team to review earlier trail-cam photos, and an image from that March revealed an adult female traveling with a juvenile aged between 8 months and a year. Biologists believe the two observations are of the same juvenile female, now approximately 3 years old.
Mountain lion territories range from approximately 60 square miles for females to 100 square miles for males, according to Midpen officials. Commonly accepted estimates place the Santa Cruz Mountain range mountain lion population at between 50 and 100 individuals. The cats assist with deer population control. Rancho is home to at least one lion, the YouTube star, and possibly another lion that may be her mother or a neighboring lion that occasionally passes through.
“These animals are part of the local ecosystem, and while we do want the public to be aware there’s a resident lion rather than one that’s simply passing through, we don’t think it’s an immediate threat or danger,” Chaney said.
Rancho is by far the district’s most popular preserve, with approximately 550,000 human visits each year compared with Fremont Older, second in popularity with approximately 160,000 visits. That steady stream of human foot traffic and the preserve’s abundance of deer mean mountain lion sightings are more likely there than elsewhere in the district, according to Chaney.
An informational webpage promoted in the January edition of “Plug into Nature,” Midpen’s monthly e-newsletter, features a map of 29 confirmed Rancho observations between January and December 2016. One of those red dots represents the Jan. 12, 2016, encounter between joggers running through Rancho before sunrise and the lion that approached them. As a precaution, Midpen temporarily closed the trail and limited park access to daylight hours.
“That immediately had an effect on how often the animal was being seen,” Chaney said.
Words of warning
Midpen encourages preserve visitors to remain alert and to refrain from hiking, jogging or biking alone or during nighttime hours. Human-lion interaction should be avoided, but if it occurs, the standard advice is to stand tall, make noise, throw objects and pick up small children without bending over. Backing away slowly presents a cornered lion with an opportunity to escape. Never run from or turn one’s back to a lion, as this may trigger the animal’s instinct to chase.
Los Altos Hills resident Allen Minton recalls the time and date of his one and only experience with mountain lions in the wild. At approximately 6:30 a.m. Feb. 26, Minton was jogging on Camino Hermoso Drive when he noticed two adult lions at the Ravensbury Avenue intersection. The big cats headed away from Minton as he approached.
“I felt extremely fortunate to have seen them,” he said. “I didn’t feel threatened in anyway whatsoever.”
Charles Knowles of Los Altos Hills also values his lone lion encounter, a September 2011 sighting on the Rhus Ridge trailhead near his Bassett Lane home. Representatives from Midpen, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife all responded to the scene, and they closed the trail for 24 hours as a safety precaution.
“I observed it for about an hour, and it was just kind of hanging out,” said Knowles, founder of the Wildlife Conservation Network, a San Francisco-based group that protects endangered species in developing countries.
Knowles said his security cameras capture mountain lions outside his home every two weeks on average, and the visits generally occur between midnight and 2 a.m.
“It’s a real blessing that we have them here,” he said. “There just isn’t enough wild in the world.”