It is dusk, prime time when mountain lions hunt. Camera in hand, pepper spray at my side, I run the trails of California’s Whiting and O’Neill county parks just days after closures from lion sightings.
Suddenly, there’s movement in the shadows.
Forget the spray. After thousands of hours roaming Orange County wilderness without a decent mountain lion sighting, I stick with the camera. There are few things more memorable than facing a 160-pound animal with bone-crushing jaws capable of bursts up to 50 mph.
Yes, I’m dumb.
But instead of a mountain lion, a scene unfolds that is equally awesome and a lot safer – two does, two fawns and a big buck with noble antlers.
According to experts, my failure to see a mountain lion during more than 25 years of exploring the county’s backcountry is no surprise. Despite the hubbub about the trail closures, the reality is that these magnificent creatures are disappearing in Orange County at an alarming rate.
And, it turns out, we are to blame.
John Gannaway is an OC Parks division manager and has been visiting the county’s wildlands since he was in college in the early 1980s. For years, he’s lived in canyon country.
Yet, during all those years, Gannaway has never stumbled across a mountain lion.
Sure, he’s seen mountain lions while tracking them, responding to reports from concerned hikers in county parks. Still, it’s exceptionally rare to spot a mountain lion in the wild.
That’s both comforting and a concern.
There are so few mountain lions left in Orange County, they are inbreeding to the point that experts see genetic mutations.
A 13-year study released in 2015 by Winston Vickers of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine found that humans are the biggest killers of mountain lions in Orange County and surrounding areas.
“Despite protection from hunting, annual survival for radio collared pumas was surprisingly low (55.8 percent), and humans caused the majority of puma deaths.
“The most common sources of mortality,” Vickers said, “were vehicle collisions (28 percent of deaths), and mortalities resulting from depredation permits issued after pumas killed domestic animals (17 percent of deaths).
“Other human-caused mortalities included illegal shootings, public safety removals, and human-caused wildfire.”
The future of these big cats is especially worrisome.
“Human population growth expected over the next century,” Vickers’ study states, “exacerbates these threats.”
Mountain lions, Gannaway points out, are part of the natural environment. He also notes that most so-called sightings involve other species.
Birds foraging in the leaves can make a surprising amount of noise. Bobcats, coyotes, even dogs often are mistaken for mountain lions.
Regardless, safety remains the priority. Rangers review field camera recordings, follow up on reports, inspect tracks and scat, consult California Department of Fish and Wildlife experts.
“We keep an eye out,” Gannaway says. “We train our staff that what is key, is unusual animal behavior. If an animal is sitting on a trail, that’s abnormal.
“If we have multiple sightings in a particular area,” he adds, “then we know the animal is a little more bold than usual.”
Bold behavior around Sept. 19 was what caused the closures of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park and the west side of O’Neill Regional Park. But further investigation found no additional mountain lion activity and after four days both areas reopened.
Cases closed? Not quite.
“We never know for sure,” Gannaway says of mountain lion whereabouts. “They can stay in an area three days to a week if they’re feeding on a deer.
“Or they can move 10 miles in a night.”
One of the problems is that existing man-made “wildlife corridors” don’t work.
My inspection of the wildlife underpass below the 91 Freeway, just east of the 241 Toll Road, found no visible use – except for dog walkers, hikers and mountain bikers. The few scattered boulders there are more designed for people needing to rest than they are for mountain lions needing to hide while moving.
Yet the site is a critical connection between the massive Chino Hills State Park and the Santa Ana Mountains.
Vickers’ study agrees.
“None of the radio collared pumas used the Coal Canyon undercrossing,” the report found. “However, two unmarked pumas were killed from 2001-2013 while attempting to cross this major freeway within 3 km of the Coal Canyon undercrossing.”
The 91 Freeway underpass failure is common. “Wildlife corridors that facilitate safe movement through the landscape,” the scientist says, “are lacking or insufficient.”
Vickers’ study estimates that at most, 27 mountain lions remain in the Santa Ana Mountains, our inspiring range of canyons, cliffs, ridges and mountaintops that we see from our homes, freeways and office buildings.
More construction is already underway and if you’re a mountain lion, that’s scary. The UC Davis study states, “14,000 new homes and associated highways will be constructed at the south end of (the 241 Toll Road) in the center of puma habitat in the Santa Ana Mountains.”
He cautions, “Evidence points towards pumas being less likely to successfully navigate this human-dominated landscape in the future.”
Still, there is hope.
While Vickers concludes habitat alone isn’t enough to protect the species, he says a combination of remedies could help. These include increased fencing along the 241, improving and adding more underpasses and building natural-looking overpasses.
Still, there always will be at least one mountain lion for us to look at in the foothills of Saddleback Mountain.
It’s the one at the O’Neill nature center and it’s stuffed.