After centuries of hunting and eradication, mountain lions are slowly making a comeback in the lower 48 states. But as their numbers grow, so do conflicts with people.
They cross roads and get in and among houses, especially after dark. Some have been hit by cars, and they're often shot if they kill livestock. Scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz are running The Santa Cruz Puma Project a five-year study of mountain lion movements to find better ways of protecting the lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains and around the country.
Field biologist Paul Houghtaling puts tracking collars on mountain lions for the study, but first he has to find them. After six hours of searching just south of the Bay Area, a pair of hound dogs has finally caught the scent. The dogs corner one, perched a tree right overhead, but it looks pretty relaxed. Houghtaling is used to being in this position.
"He's interested in us, but just a little while ago he had his head down on the branch," Houghtaling says. "He's gonna wait us out."
Houghtaling loads his rifle with a dart to sedate the lion. He aims and hits it square in the thigh. The mountain lion leaps down and runs by at full speed — closer than expected.
Houghtaling catches up with the mountain lion as she — it turns out to be female — falls asleep under some bushes. Houghtaling takes her vitals and gives her the name 38F — as in the 38th mountain lion in the study, F for female. He fits her with a tracking collar that records her location every four hours. Some of those locations will be human ones, as development and roads split up open areas that used to be mountain lion property.
What the study has already learned could help protect this mountain lion population and others around the country. For instance, tracking shows that when the lions cross a local highway, they all tend to cross in the same places. So now, transportation officials are designing wildlife corridors in those places so the mountain lions can cross safely.
Houghtaling says they've also found mountain lions need isolated areas to breed and raise their young — something that's informing habitat conservationists.
He does a final check on the tracking collar, and steps back so 38F can slowly wake up and return to her life in the Santa Cruz Mountains.