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Connecting the Dots: Searching for Mountain Lions in Southern California

I remember as a kid, growing up in rural Iowa, the fiercest predators in our woods and grasslands were coyotes. This is definitely where I fell in love with them, but they gained a rival for my attention when I was sitting in the backseat as my mom bought roadside sweet corn and asparagus. There was a local farmer that spoke to my mom about how he had come across what he thought was a large dog in his field as he passed our produce through the window. That was until it made a vertical jump onto a boulder that no domestic dog could have made and he immediately knew what was wandering through his field. I remember there being an almost immediate sense of panic in the community. I would over hear adults speak about the lurking monster on the edges of town and the talk of it killing people. Of course, a lot of my conversation at this time were with other young kids who had an affinity to let their imagination run wild. Playing outside was now only allowed if you had a a friend to keep you safe and in my case that included my black Labrador retriever Smudgie. It may not have been the best parenting decisions, expecting kids to fend off cougars together, but this was just how the late 90’s, early 2000’s parents handled business. The murmurs continued for awhile and eventually like most rumors, become lost with time. I was curious about this specific “sighting” of a mountain lion. Because this was all run of the small town rumor mill network, I did some digging to see if there were any recorded sightings near the neighborhood I grew up in at this time. The search showed that not only was there not a mountain lion sighting in that area at that time, but there has never been a mountain lion sighting in that area ever. It takes a minute to process the amount of fear that was quick to spread through a community like wildfire without any real threat at all.

You may be wondering why or even how a mountain lion project started in southern California is getting introduced by a story of false mountain lion sightings in Iowa and what that connection even is. Simply, I believe its fear. I look back to how my town reacted to the unfounded rumors of a large cat in the area. The immediate response was to believe that somehow we were in danger. I also think back to how the first thing people wanted to do was kill it. Over the course of 26 years there have only been 36 confirmed *or probable* sightings of mountain lions. Of these 36, eight have been killed by humans which translates to 22.2222% of the mountain lions that have been reported being seen in the state between 1995 and 2021. Now, outside of me living in Iowa and coming to California there is a bigger connection to this issue that I hadn’t initially noticed when I started tracking these big cats out here.

Mountain lions have large ranges and depend on wide open, undeveloped land to travel and find mates outside of their gene pool. In California, we have built so much infrastructure that few dispersal routes exist anymore and this affects our lions by causing inbreeding that leads to a less healthy population of mountain lions. In Iowa, there is an issue I see with senselessly killing a keystone species that is potentially using Iowa as a dispersal route to other populations of mountain lions or even in search of their own home ranges. This is the metaphorical equivalent to building a city in which the lion can no longer live.

So what is it exactly that I am doing with mountain lions and how will it help?

The project started off in search of mountain lions, their utilization of cache sites and whether or not they are strategically placed feeding stations. However, my biggest goal is to spread awareness of the already large problem that mountain lions face all over the United States. To do this I have started tracking mountain lions with trail cameras here in southern California. I have set up areas that will likely have mountain lion activity based on multiple sources that work in congruence for better results when physically searching an area. Other people’s sightings, food availability, land topography and type of landscape all play a role in finding the right area. We are often enticed by the elusiveness of a mountain lion, but it isn’t until you truly try to find one that you see just how beautiful their determination is. The process is painstakingly slow, especially as a one man operation putting in all the miles of hiking involved just to come up empty handed can lead to frustration. However, the times you do get lucky enough to catch a glimpse into their world, the moment feels like a connection to the wild places around you. I will never forget the feeling I had the first time I checked the trail cam and saw the glow of a night time video and the muscular body of a mountain lion utilizing the scrape I was worried “might not be a scrape after all, it has been a couple weeks and nothing has showed”. There was an electricity coursing through my body and a feeling that I had obtained something sacred. It was a special moment between wild animal and myself, being able to share the same space and only take what we needed.

As I progress with this project, I will go into more depth of what the project hopes to accomplish, what it has, issues that mountain lions are facing and how you can get involved. The future of these big cats and so many other important species are relying on us to step up and make a difference. There is no more time to waste so let’s start tackling the problem together.

Get Involved

Mountain Lion Foundation

The Cougar Fund

Save LA Cougars

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