Pumas and People in San Vicente Redwoods

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This photo was taken by a trail camera trap used for both scientific research and property security. Credit: POST/Sempervirens Fund



Finding the balance between wildlife and recreation

Article by Mike Kahn, Communications and Outreach Manager
First, let me calm your fears or burst your bubble depending on your disposition. You are probably never going to see a puma in the wild, and if you do it will last a few seconds as you see a flash of its tail running away.

“Pumas tend to be fearful of humans, so most of the time they just avoid us,” says Veronica Yovovich. “Some people can live in the Santa Cruz Mountains their whole lives and never see one. They’re called ghost cats.”

Veronica is an Environmental Studies graduate student at UC Santa Cruz and a researcher with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, a partnership between UCSC and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It was a warm winter day in early February on our 8,532-acre San Vicente Redwoods property. I had the pleasure of being out on the land with Veronica to facilitate a television shoot about “living with lions” for NBC Bay Area’s OpenRoad with Doug McConnell.

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Pumas co-evolved with wolves and their natural defense is to climb a tree to get away from potential canine combatants. Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Puma Project.

Pumas (Puma concolor) are the native mountain lions, also known as panthers, cougars or catamounts.

“Beep, beep, beep.”

“Do you hear that?” Veronica said softly, as she waived her telemetry device that looks like an old rooftop TV antenna. “That’s 38F, an adult female puma. She has a collar for monitoring, and each collar has its own frequency, which is why I know it’s her.”

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Veronica Yovovich from the Puma Project shows OpenRoad television host Doug McConnell how this telemetry device works to track pumas. Credit: Mike Kahn/Sempervirens Fund

Veronica explained that pumas are important as apex predators (those at the top of the food chain) in helping maintain a healthy ecosystem. Ninety-five percent of the puma diet is deer (a prey species). This naturally regulates the deer population, which in turn regulates the numbers and types of plants that deer feed on. Losing the pumas will throw the balance out of whack.

There are estimated to be 40 pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and puma 38F is one of four pumas known to regularly use San Vicente as part of its territory. I’d say San Vicente was 38F’s home but that terminology is problematic since female pumas have a home range of 40-80 square miles and males range 100-150 square miles. Note that males fight to defend their territories and have only small overlaps with other males, while females can overlap with other males and females.

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Puma cub 23F. Scientists don’t assign nicknames to pumas in order to maintain objectivity, but this little one sure is cute anyway!
Credit: Tom McElroy/Santa Cruz Puma Project

The extensive range pumas need for territory, hunting and breeding is one reason why it’s so important to have large intact habitat with connected wildlife corridors. Roads and new development that fragment habitat are the biggest threats to pumas. Fortunately San Vicente Redwoods is adjacent to over 10,000 acres of protected lands including Swanton Ranch and Coast Dairies, making it a rich contiguous wildlife habitat – an important component of our Great Park vision.

Puma Project research on San Vicente Redwoods helps identify where pumas are most active – their main through routes, their denning sites and communication hubs (yes, they do “talk” to each other via scrapes, scent and caterwauling) – and this data is informing the location of public access trails planned for the property.

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This map shows a sample of cumulative tracking data for collared mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with colored areas indicating their home range.

Public access is still at least a year away due to the planning and permitting processes, but once more people are on the property Puma Project researchers will monitor the impact on the puma population. Birds, bats and fish will also continue to be monitored by other researchers. Any significant impacts will inform changes to the adaptive management plan, helping to ensure ecosystem health over time.

I didn’t see any “ghost cats” that day but it is heartening to think that these magnificent creatures are on the land and have a chance to thrive alongside human populations, thanks to the support of people like you.

Additional Information:

Join a research team from University of California, Santa Cruz as they track, tranquilize and collar a wild puma. The special GPS collars collect data on the puma’s location and behavior, and they reveal how the big cats survive in their shrinking habitat in the Bay Area:

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Staying Safe in Mountain Lion Country

Information and tips from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Mountain lions are quiet, solitary and elusive, and typically avoid people. Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare. However, conflicts are increasing as California’s human population expands into 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.

Learn more here:  Keep Me Wild- Mountain Lion

The Pumas and People article was first published in our Mountain Echo newsletter.
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