With this post begins a series on cougars and cougar tracking.
The first cougar print I ever saw was at a tracking class around Davenport near Santa Cruz CA. Davenport is an ocean town, backed by rolling hills and wild lands. After a morning of tracking lessons, the group split up into smaller bands and we walked around the edges of a large field. In the middle of a dirt two-track road was one cougar print.
When I lived in Marin County, my neighbors and friends had plenty of cougar sightings. With a plethora of deer and no hunting, along with a lot of preserved lands up and down the coast, Marin has its share of wildlife, including cougars. But its still rare to see one.
I lived in a subdivision that abutted a large swath of open space. Thirty years ago, the early residents had the foresight to purchase the hills behind their new homes to preserve forever. They gave the management of these lands over to the Marin County Open Space District. Once on a trail in these hills, you could literally walk to the ocean about twenty miles away through vast expanses of preserved lands and ranches. From the Golden Gate National Recreation Areas north to Sonoma County, here is where cougars roam.
Although I walked those hills almost daily, and for years, I never once encountered a lion. In September, the driest month of the year, the deer would come down from the hills to the perennial stream that ran alongside Lucas Valley Road where I lived. And the lions follow the deer. It was at this time that most sightings occurred. One day a neighbor who lived next to the Open Space area, told me she was washing dishes in the kitchen when she looked out her window and saw a cougar. Another friend was walking his dog and saw a lion. Another friend told me her son was hiking on Mt. Tamalpais when he spied a cougar on a rock above him, watching. Sadly, I never had the pleasure of seeing one.
Because of the extraordinary amount of deer in Marin, cougars are living close to people. California voters outlawed cougar hunting in 1996, yet there has never been one incident in Marin of a cougar attacking a person. In July of this year a Marin county man was attacked in a remote area of the Sierra foothills by a cougar. He was alone, in his sleeping bag, awakened by a large paw on the side of his head. He survived. This is such a rare incident. One sound theory to explain this attack is that the man’s snoring sounded like a wounded animal to the cat.
California does give out kill tags to people who claim livestock loss from cats. But you have to ask yourself: other states have a hunt on cougars in order to limit their numbers and protect people. Yet in a state as big as California, these kinds of attacks are incredibly rare. From 1890 to the present, only 19 verifiable cougar caused deaths have taken place in all of North America–one of those was in California in 2004, the only death since California’s no hunting law began, with an estimated 4000-6000 cats statewide.