Researchers tracking mountain lion in wilderness park near Laguna Beach

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A Mountain lion’s close up. Photo courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

A male mountain lion prowling the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park area near Laguna Beach is the first confirmed report of a big cat in the South Coast wilderness in almost 20 years, experts said Tuesday.

The radio-tracked collar on the mountain lion pinged in the area of the county-operated park, city officials said late Monday. This is the same big cat that was captured by Irvine animal services officers in a commercial park near Waterworks Way and Odyssey on March 22, said Winston Vickers, a research wildlife veterinarian and director of the California Mountain Lion Project at UC Davis.

After being examined at Serrano Animal & Bird Hospital, the cougar was released in the Cleveland National Forest near Santiago Peak, Vickers said. In this latest jaunt, the cat made its way down the Arroyo Trabuco creek, used a concrete drainage channel to pass under I-5 in San Juan Capistrano, and may have used several greenbelts to make his way to the coastal wilderness park.

“If there’s one that ends up in a backyard it’s often a young male because they’re trying to disperse from their mothers, often at a great distance, Vickers said.

Scientists recognize an adult mountain lion requires a territory of about 500-square miles, making it quite unlikely the cat will remain in the 22,000-acre Laguna Greenbelt.

Although a 24-hour day on satellite-relayed delay makes it impossible for researchers to know where the mountain lion is in real-time, Vickers suspects the animal successfully hunted a deer or coyote because it’s stayed in the same area for 36 hours. The cats only do stay put for so long while finishing a meal.

Laguna Beach police have received no reports of a mountain lion sighting since Monday, city spokesperson Cassie Walder wrote in an email Tuesday.

“Park staff has not received any recent mountain lion sighting reports nor has staff observed any mountain lions at Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park,” OC Parks spokesperson Marisa O’Neil said Tuesday.

Park staff routinely look for evidence of mountain lions, including tracks, scat, food caches, and tree scrapes. Any traces are reported to the on-duty park ranger. Mountain lion advisory signs are posted at all authorized trailheads and educational flyers on how to safely hike in cougar country are available at the park visitor center.

“No matter where you are in California, if you have deer and trees there’s a chance a mountain lion could be there,” Vickers said.

The mule deer population in the Laguna Greenbelt appears to be healthy but there’s no indication of a recent population boom, said Jackeline Cordero, senior director of operations for Laguna Canyon Foundation.

“They don’t have those large predators and they’re used to people. They’re not easily startled unless you’re running or riding a mountain bike,” Cordero said.

Mountain lion attacks on people are extremely rare, the California Dept. Of Fish & Wildlife. The agency advises:

  • Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.
  • Avoid hiking or jogging when big cats are most active–dawn, dusk, and at night.
  • Keep a close watch on small children.
  • Call 911 if a human is attacked.

Mountain lions are a specially protected mammal in California and cannot be hunted. They also play a vital ecosystem in checking deer populations.

Moving problem mountain lions may be done in extreme circumstances. However, relocation may lead to deadly conflicts with other mountain lions
 already there.

Residents should report a mountain lion sighting immediately to Laguna Beach Police at 949-497–0701. For more information on mountain lions, visit keepmewild.org.

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