Do Cougars in O.C. Face Insurmountable Odds?

Development, fire, inbreeding and poisoning are threatening the population, says the Southern California Mountain Lion Project.

Referred to by Native Americans as “Ghostwalkers,” mountain lions are declining in numbers in Orange County—multiple threats are obliterating their habitat.

The Southern California Mountain Lion Project observes cougars in their natural habitat in order to better understand their migratory patterns and diseases infecting the population by attaching a radio collar to the cougar. The collar, using technology known as radiotelemetry, allows scientists to follow a cougar’s moves via GPS for a four- to six-month period.

See below for safety tips on living peacefully with mountain lions.

“Our studies show that the mountain lion population in Orange County is the least diverse population,” said project volunteer Donna Krucki. The Southern California Mountain Lion Project is based at the UC Davis veterinary medicine school.

Krucki spoke at the Rancho Mission Viejo Reserve as part of an educational program Wednesday evening.

Rodenticide, a pest control chemical intended to eliminate small rodents, has also been linked to the decreased cougar population, said the UC Davis Wildlife Heath Center website. Two Southern California lions have died from exposure to this chemical via ingestion of prey during the study.

“Rodenticides have a direct correlation with the amount of wildlife," Krucki said.  "It’s not just mountain lions that are being affected. Both cats that have died in this study had large amounts of rodenticide in their livers.”

Cougars are also threatened with loss of habitat through development and wildfires. Populations of mountain lions in Orange County are so small that scientists worry about inbreeding, which can damage the species even further.

“Our mountain range is an island of wilderness,” said Krucki. “It is surrounded by development, and genetics has become a big concern.” 

Some 15 to 20 cougars exist in the Santa Ana Mountain range, based on the study, which includes Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties.

The Southern California Mountain Lion Project hopes to create “wildlife corridors,” land designated for animals to move safely throughout developed areas including underneath busy streets, in order to create successful population dispersal. 

“I hope through conservation and education, we will always have ‘Ghostwalker’ in the Santa Ana Mountains,” said Krucki.

 The California Department of Fish and Game Offers these safety rules for people who live near mountain lion habitat:

  • Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.
  • Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active -- dawn, dusk and at night.
  • Keep a close watch on small children.
  • Do not approach a mountain lion.
  • If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.
  • If attacked, fight back.
  • If a mountain lion attacks a person, immediately call 911.
Rich Kane May 10, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Do cougars in O.C. face insurmountable odds? Kinda depends on what one's definition of "cougar" is -- the furry four-legged kind, or the two-legged variety who are inclined to date younger men?
Oliver Yu May 10, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Well if you are talking about cougars surviving in such an area with their habitat only getting smaller with developing houses, I would say it is wishful thinking at best. The middle to upper class area of Coto de Caza is probably the most prone to seeing such animals and if anyone happens to get injured, I can assure you that the cougars will be put down like a crazed dog.
Anony Mouse May 11, 2012 at 05:48 AM
I don't know the answer to that question. Perhaps you should go to The Quiet Woman on a Friday or Saturday night and study them.
Janet Whitcomb May 12, 2012 at 08:36 PM
It wasn't so long ago that a mountain biker at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park died, presumably as a result of a mountain lion attack. (Check out this site for several takes on how it might have happened: http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks_ca.html) Soon after I interviewed a woman living in Modjeska Canyon, on the other side of Santiago Canyon Road from Whiting Ranch. The woman told me that the previous week two mountain lions had been seen walking along the canyon road, in broad daylight, and that several pet goats had been found slain and half-eaten and buried under leaves after those sightings. Then she told me—confirmed later by my own research—that mountain lions do not typically 1) travel together, 2) walk around during the day, or 3) venture near areas populated by humans. Unfortunately for the cougars, we've urbanized a lot of areas that were formerly wilderness habitat, and in fact in many instances have surrounded those areas. What happens, then, are unusual behaviors from the cougars, such as the ones just noted, and situations that often result in attacks on humans and/or the killing of cougars, many of whom are either starving or too young to be aware of the danger in venturing too close to a community of humans.
Mike Proctor May 14, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Lets think about this. The moratorium on hunting California Mountain Lions was voted into law via the people of this great state back in 1990. Research indicates the average life span of a mountain lion is12-15 years, and they can have on average 1-3 kittens per litter. So all the current Mountain Lions in Cal. are cats that have been born since the ban on hunting them was put into law. So we now have a new generation of cats tat have no real fear of man. We also now have no real control of the populations of cats. It is only a matter of time, that man and cat encounters will become more common. I don't know how many cats were killed via predication permits, but i do know that the state has spent a ridiculous mount of money on outside agencies to hunt and kill "nuisance" lions. In one instance, they hired a company from Australia, and payed them tens of thousands of dollars to kill one lion. I don't understand why the sate doesn't simply sale a certain number of hunting permits to licensed hunters. Hunters would several thousands of dollars for a cougar tag. It would be a good revenue for the DFG, as well help manage the population, as well as put the fear of man back into the animal, making accidental human/cat encounters less likely. AND no, I would not hunt a Mountain Lion, but I do think that hunting is also a necessary and effective management tool. JMO ;-)


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