California Fails to Manage Mountain Lions

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Mountain lions are an essential element of California ecosystems. Unfortunately they are not currently managed in any form. Although the most important cougar prey species, blacktail and mule deer, are managed, a failure to manage the main species that eats deer makes deer management less predictable.


This California lion was photographed with a trail camera near Livermore. A lion like this can take a heavy toll on a local deer population, especially if she has juvenile cubs.

Other states have progressive, scientific methods of managing wildlife and consider mountain lions a game animal that is hunted with quotas to make sure numbers of deer, deer hunters and lions is balanced. California is out of touch.

Congratulations to Dan Richards, pictured above with his Idaho mountain lion – which appears to be a huge tom.

The difference between a Coyote Track and a Mountain Lion Track

Came upon a mountain lion track while hiking near Del Valle Reservoir last week. It had been raining and the ground was nearly saturated, good conditions for seeing tracks.

I was looking at a variety of tracks when I came upon a set of mountain lions prints. I photographed one the clearest tracks with my iPhone camera. Here it is.

The mountain lion track is more round than oval and the claws don't show, unless the lion slips or needs traction. When the lion slips, it will involuntarily extend its claws and they will show as points in the mud.

The heel pad of a lion appears larger than a coyote or other canine.

Here’s a good example of a coyote track.

The coyote track is more oval and the claws show clearly in the track. The heel pad does not appear as large.

The mature coyote track is smaller than the mature lion track. Large domestic dogs often leave tracks as large as lion tracks and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. In the case of this lion, I would give the ID a high degree of confidence.

A lion like this can take a heavy toll on a local deer population, especially if she has juvenile cubs.Coyotes usually don't stop to be photographed, except in Yellowstone.

Mountain Lion Track on Freshly Graded Road

My pocket knife is 3 1/2 inches long, about the length of this track.

This is not a large lion or a small one either. The ground is soft, which is why the track shows at all. On hard ground one seldom spots lion tracks. This lion track was found on a road that also held many deer tracks. Where there are deer, lions will follow.

Bucks are growing their antlers.

One of the benefits of predators is that they move their prey species around, protecting flora from overgrazing.

Mending Fences – with Distractions

The pace of work changes when you spend a couple days in the hills. It’s really hard to get in a hurry and there are many distractions. The main event- mending fence. The sub plots – turkeys, wildflowers and other photo ops.

Rob and Terry looking down at a half mile of very old or non-existent fence, an intimidating project.

 (Click photos to enlarge.)

When you’re working on a project that looks overwhelming, it pays to not get in a hurry – so we didn’t.

The starting point for the fence project was at the top of a very steep drop off into a spot we had to exit the same way we went in. In other words what you carry down, you also carry up unless it’s fence material. A few hours per day is all we could handle on a project like this. A couple hours of hanging on to the side of a cliff while working is enough.

In the mean time distractions were all around us. On the way in I came across a group of four old gobblers that have been a making a living eating grain from horse feed.

These old toms have been hanging out near the neighbor's barn.

Wild flowers were blooming. Johnny-jump-ups, shooting stars  and butter cups were everywhere. The yellow and white flowers seem to bloom early while the blue flowers like lupins seem to bloom later on. There’s likely a reason, but I don’t know what it is.

Johnny- jump-ups (wild pansy) are a butterfly host plant.

The plant, which most locals call johnny-jump-ups, is also known as wild pansy or yellow pansy. The scientific name is viola pedunculata. It is a host plant for the Callippe Silverspot Butterfly, which is endangered.

Other early favorites include the shooting star (“mosquito bills” variety).

Mosquitobills shooting star.

While checking the spillway on one of our dams, I found a fresh mountain lion scat. The scat, about the size of my labs scat tends to be clay-like and greenish is color when it’s fresh – and if really fresh, extremely stinky.

Mountain lion scat. This is a medium-sized scat.

We also found a few stinkbells in bloom, but they seemed to be a little past their prime.

The stinkbell is somewhat rare.

The scientific name for the stinkbell is fritillaria agrestis.

The California buttercup is very common on our ranch.

The scientific name for the buttercup is ranunculus californicus.

With some fence progress and obligations at home, I departed while Rob and Terry continued to work on the fence. On the way home I came upon more turkeys. This time two gobblers were hanging out with three hens. Looks like nesting time is about here, but they were not very active.

These birds slipped into a creek and moved quickly out of sight.

It’s a little early in the nesting season and the turkeys were not in full breeding mode. The gobblers were more interested in eating than strutting for the hens.

Two Bucks, Same Fate

Last spring I came across a nice buck while turkey hunting. Although his antlers were undeveloped, the size of the base of his antlers indicated that he’d be a shooter. I looked for him during the rifle season last summer and didn’t find him.

Rob found him a couple weeks ago.

These bucks had several things in common.

Unfortunately a lion found him first. (click to enlarge photo.)

It’s tough to grow bucks to a ripe old age when the lion density is high. And, that’s what ours is, very high. This buck must have met his demise about the start of the new year. His antlers had many things in common with the other set of antlers in the photo, which belonged to a different lion-killed buck. (See “The Lion and the Buck.”).

Both are larger than average for mature bucks on our property. Both are not quite at the point of being old – they’re maybe three and a half. Both have four points on at least one side and their dimensions are nearly identical. Both were killed by mountain lions. We would like to grow older bucks, but they just don’t live to a very old age in mountain lion country.

Mountain lions are fully protected in California, a status shared by only a few other species.

Another Deer Bites the Dust

Spent Friday night and Saturday morning at the ranch. It was hot and the deer didn’t seem very active, but I was distracted watching poachers and wondering if they were heading our way.

Decided to make a brief still hunt and came upon a fairly fresh set of deer bones. Another mountain lion kill.

Mountain lions at work.

 No deer photos on the trail camera. Wondering why. Got some good photos of juvenile red legged frogs.

Juvenile red-leg frog in pond rebuilt last fall.

Fired my .300 WSM and got it sighted in perfect for the upcoming D6 trip.

Can’t Stockpile Wildlife

When you think you have control over a population of animals on your property, you’re heading for disappointment. Nature is designed to end surplus and if you don’t step in when a surplus is available, something else will.

Deer living in groups are less succestible to lion predation.

We found this out a few years ago when we had a rather unusal buck on our property. He was so unusual that we named him the high-horn buck. High-horn, lasted a few years and when we finally decided he was about large enough to shoot, he dissapeared. We believe he wandered onto the neighboring property, or maybe somebody decided to poach him. We’ll never know for sure.

Last summer we had two nice bucks hanging around and we could probably killed the largest of the two if we chose to, but we elected to pass and now the two bucks are just one. The largest has vanished and we believe a lion got him. Our deer numbers are down significantly – just when we thought we had a bunch of deer, numbers have dwindled.

These yearlings stick close to our camp in a group of five.

When a lion is working the area deer become less visible. Some have been killed, other have moved to nearby neighborhoods and the remaining deer are quite reclusive and nervous. 

Now that the second large buck is living alone, he may be vulnerable to a lion attack like his buddy. He’s a nice buck, but there’s nothing about him to entice us to shoot him this early in the season. We may have regrets before the season is out.

A lion like this can take a heavy toll on a local deer population, especially if she has juvenile cubs.

 As we walked the perimeter of one of our ponds, photographing frogs and salamanders, we came upon the bones of a small buck Rob had seen at the pond a couple weeks ago.

This young buck was hanging out by itself the last time Rob saw it alive.

It’s just a fact that you can’t stockpile deer, especially when (in California) you have no legal way to manage lions to increase deer numbers.