Herding Cats to Save Human Lives

Mountain Lions in the Bay Area

By Derek Chartrand Wallace

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Mother mountain lion and her cubs. Photo printed with permission. Photo Credit: © Jean-Louis KLEIN & Marie-Luce HUBERT

Mountain Lion? Cougar? Panther? Which is correct? None of the above. Puma concolor is the scientific term for the secretive and solitary felid, native to the Bay Area, but that’s not her true name. Since European colonization she has been given such colloquial nomenclatures as “sneak-cat,” “catamount,” and “ghost walker.” Here in the Bay Area, she is known to the native Ohlone as tammala and she stalks the night, robbing deer of their lives and homeowners of their poodles. In spite of such conflicts, this has been her home base since the time of ekwena nii heentikma okse (“there were no people here long ago”). She once lived amongst sacred indigenous sites upon which Ikeas were built, and deadly concrete freeways poured, fragmenting her ancestral hunting grounds. Now, new scientific discoveries are highlighting how humans could pay the price in the long run, if we continue to disregard, disrespect, and destroy tammalas’ natural way of life.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared tammalas’ Eastern seaboard cousins extinct. How much longer until she faces the same fate here in our golden California due to urban sprawl, industrial development, “depredation” hunting to protect non-native livestock, and last-resort inbreeding? A 2016 study by “Proceedings of the Royal Society B,” predicted a 99.7 percent chance that tammalas’ Santa Monica Mountain relatives face this threat within the next 50 years. “You can look at genetics and you can say we aren’t seeing as much variety in the genes as we would expect,” says Dr. Veronica Yovovich, Wildlife Conflict Specialist at the Mountain Lion Foundation, in a recent interview with the BCC Voice. “They don’t see the kind of variety that they expect to see and so they can tell the population is becoming isolated.” This “gene-pileup” can lead to birth defects such as male infertility and holes in their hearts, a fast track on the road to ruin for a species that already has a low-level population in these bubbles. What’s the best way to keep fresh genes flowing and new cougar kittens coming? Animal corridors, also known as wildlife bridges or greenways, have been proven to help critters cross over lethal freeways. During our interview, Yovovich perks up at the mention of this kind of solution. “One of the really new and exciting projects going on is that the Santa Cruz Land Trust, the California Department of Transportation, Pathways for Wildlife, and other conservation groups have gotten together and secured land on either side of Highway 17, which bisects the Santa Cruz Mountains.” They are planning to install “a wildlife crossing structure specifically for wildlife to bridge the two sides.” Those of us here in the Bay Area, who travel that route from Silicon Valley to the near-mythical beaches below, might soon get a chance to see some real-life cat herding in action!

As great as this will be for tammala and her extended family, to leave their home turf to widen their gene pool, the physical and financial benefits to humans can’t be overestimated. Since mountain lions play an important role in regulating the population of prey species such as deer, this translates into fewer vehicle collisions for us. So, with safe passage over freeways, greenways not only let tammalas roam free over a wide range of territory, but also allow them to thin the herds to keep deer from leaping suicidal through our windshields on the highway to the danger zone.

“On the East Coast, we’ve gotten rid of wolves; we’ve gotten rid of mountain lions, and what that’s done is to allow the deer to become hyper abundant,” says Yovovich. “Collisions have become much more frequent on the East Coast than they used to be. That certainly doesn’t end well for the deer— getting hit by a car—also it’s really hazardous for motorists to hit a 150-pound animal on the road. And there goes your car!”

Another benefit to humans is wildfire mitigation. If tammala and her kind do not regulate the herds of hungry urban ungulates, their numbers rise until saplings and underbrush are decimated.

Calamity ensues as pine trees burn too hot or not enough, their resin unable to chemically release precious seeds inside, which normally go on to create replacement condominiums for insects, birds, and mammals.

In the words of the Ohlone, that would be ekeT —bad, bordering on sinful. The ripple effects of the death of just one mountain lion can be felt throughout an entire ecosystem. Eliminate an apex predator and it makes the meso-carnivores in the middle level of the food web more abundant.

“We’ve got more coyotes now on the East Coast than there used to be,” says Yovovich. “That suppresses the red fox population. The way this influences people is that red foxes eat small rodents. These small rodents are good vectors, carriers for diseases such as Lyme disease, which has [consequently] become much more common on the East Coast than it used to be.”

Why is there such fear of tammala, our animal neighbor, and misunderstanding about the vital role she plays in the web of life? Much of it is due to mountain lions’ supposed anti-social nature, coupled with folklore bordering on tales of the supernatural. Campfire yarns about midnight marauders akin to land sharks outnumber stories of their wildfire mitigation. But in reality, this twilight predator avoids human contact at all costs. There have only been three confirmed sightings in the past seven years here in the East Bay—Hayward in 2010, Danville in 2011, and Pleasant Hill in 2012, according to a “Puma Sighting Map” on the Bay Area Puma Project’s website. Despite the phantom feline’s attempts at anonymity, bad public relations have turned this nocturnal ninja into one of California’s Most Wanted. But you can help.

For BCC Voice readers concerned about the fate of the tammala, one of the easiest, most accessible things you can do is to write a letter to the editor of any media source who publishes sensationalistic reporting about the dangers of local carnivores. Students who care about animals should speak up, says Yovovich. “It’s helpful to push back on predatory, fear-mongering, irresponsible reporting.” Bans on trapping, avoidance of using rat poisons, supporting funding for open space and habitat connectivity, and good conservation practices by your state’s wildlife management agency, together could help save this majestic creature from extinction.

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