Tracking mountain lions in San Francisco

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online
It’s not unusual to see people working on computers in Silicon Valley, but Richard Pickens isn’t a software developer or a cybersecurity expert – he’s a member of a local conservation, research and education group working to track mountain lions in urban areas of California.
Pickens, who is profiled in a recent National Geographic story, is a member of the Bay Area Puma Project (BAPP), a group founded by Felidae Conservation Fund executive director Zara McDonald in 2007. McDonald’s goal was to help protect and sustain populations of the wildcat species in the San Francisco Bay Area through scientific research and public education.
“BAPP’s primary goal is to increase knowledge, understanding and awareness about Bay Area puma populations, in order to promote better co-existence and less conflict between humans and pumas in the region, and ultimately to help foster a more harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world,” the organization said on its official website.
“As the top predator in the natural spaces around the Bay Area, the puma plays a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of our local ecosystems,” it added. “However human development is rapidly encroaching on puma habitat, creating mounting problems that include habitat fragmentation and corridor loss, increasing anxiety in local communities due to puma encounters, and more human-puma conflicts involving roads, livestock, and depredation.”
In addition, BAPP said that since the puma is “both a bellwether and a keystone species,” the issues it faces could also threaten the region’s biodiversity and the overall habitat. In response, they have launched a 10-year program designed to research puma biology and behavior, launch community outreach programs and teach people about the need to preserve ecosystems.
“These programs are accompanied by state-of-the-art online technologies designed to raise understanding and support in the broader public,” the group added. “Finally, detailed data generated by the research will be used to advance collaborative discussions with key agencies and officials, to safeguard key wildlife habitats and corridors.”
As part of those efforts, Pickens and fellow field technician Ian Hanley were recently joined by Nat Geo reporter Nadia Drake as they used a laptop to study images from a nearby camera, hoping to catch a glimpse at one of the estimated six adult mountain lions prowling the hills in and around San Jose.
On that day, they had little luck, but Drake said that this “isn’t always the case. As California’s concrete jungles creep continually outward, more and more cats are finding themselves living on the edges of urban areas. Occasionally, they end up right in the middle of cities,” such as one that lives in Los Angeles and another that wandered into downtown Mountain View earlier this year.
As the Nat Geo writer points out, those types of incidents are rare and usually do not end well for the cats (the Mountain View one was killed by a car and the L.A. one wound up consuming rat poison), but the urban expansion can be equally as deadly, as puma populations can find themselves cut off by highways and suburbs.
Pickens, Hanley and their BAPP colleagues have been using GPS collars and cameras to track the movement of the mountain lions. Their goal is to learn as much as they can about the cats: what their diets consist of, when they mate, where they go and how they ultimately meet their end. Observations such as these can help their conservation efforts by helping identify stretches of land that could be set aside for wildlife.
“Pumas are magnificent, graceful, quintessential ingredients in a wild landscape that is becoming less wild every day,” said McDonald. “We know that these cats are squeezed. And one of the things that we’d like to learn is, what is the risk of these populations becoming increasingly isolated, making them no longer viable?”
“People’s attitudes about lions run the gamut,” added Marc Kenyon, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and who has studied pumas for over a decade. “What it really comes down to is talking with people, helping them understand what pressures you’re facing, what pressures lions are facing.”
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