By Audrey F. Baker
“I almost hit a mountain lion – in San Carlos!”
Mike Johanning, a San Carlos resident since 1997, was coming home from dinner around 11 p.m. on March 29. Heading westbound on Navajo Road, and approaching the silhouette of Cowles Mountain to his right and Mission Trails Golf Course to his left, his beams lit up an unexpected sight.
“At first, I thought it was a coyote. When I saw its size, fully stretched-out, and that long, cat-like tail, I knew it was a mountain lion.”
His dash cam recorded the incident. Under full stride, the puma crossed Navajo and disappeared into the golf course.
“The adrenaline was really flowing,” Johanning said.
Upon arriving home, he downloaded the footage and uploaded the clip to social media.
“I wanted to get the word out and wanted people to be aware [of the sighting].”
He did just that. On YouTube alone, over 5,000 site visitors vicariously experienced a rare sighting.
For many viewers, the video brings additional public awareness to environmental issues. It illustrates the challenge of maintaining both biodiversity and public safety.
An early response to Johanning’s postings was an invitation to contact iNaturalist, a social network and database of naturalists, “citizen scientists” and biologists.
“I was pleased to have the opportunity to share the sighting with the scientific community,” Johanning said.
Veterinarian and professor Winston Vickers, of the Wildlife Health Center at University of California, Davis, was among those who viewed Johanning’s video. Dr. Vickers’ pursuits include an ongoing study, initiated in 2001, of puma populations in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Vickers said the mountain lion seen in the video is an example of a young male exploring unfamiliar terrain.
“Understanding how threatened species respond to natural and human landscapes leads to proactive conservation solutions,” he said.
Research has shown that the prime mover in the biodiversity crisis is human land-use expansion.
When human land use spreads, habitat fragmentation results.
Heidi Gutknecht, a park ranger at Mission Trails Regional Park offers a likely scenario of why the puma crossed the road.
“As natural habitats continue to be broken up into smaller and smaller ‘islands’ surrounded by development, wildlife have no choice but to cross through our human habitats in order to get from one fragment of natural habitat to another,” she said.
Johanning’s video demonstrates the challenges animals face. Highways and roadways are substantial barriers to animal movement and reproductive health. Equally, it alerts us that unpredictable crossings may jeopardize human safety.
Both suggest an increased need for landscape “connectivity” improvements, including corridors between conserved lands and fencing that funnel animals to safe underpass crossing structures. These mitigation measures will reduce animal/vehicle collisions in future.
Responding to the recent San Carlos sighting, Phoenix Von Hendy, president of the San Diego Tracking Team, offers insights on puma behavior and the rarity of the sighting.
“Mountain lions are quiet, solitary and elusive, and typically avoid people. [They] are not commonly encountered in San Diego County, and attacks on humans are really, really rare,” he said. “Our closest survey location to San Carlos is in Mission Trails Regional Park under Highway 52. Historically, mountain lion evidence has been noted every couple years. Our records show they are not present on a regular basis in any of the locations where we perform wildlife monitoring.”
Bob Forthun, education coordinator for the San Diego River Park Foundation, addressed the issue of preserving our environment for future generations.
“When we educate our children on the importance of creating and maintaining open space, those children will grow up to have a sense of responsibility for the environment, and take positive action,” Forthun said. “Large animals, such as mountain lions, need lots of space to hunt, find water, shelter, and mates. If we create and maintain corridors linking wilderness areas for these animals, we do much to create a safe and positive environment for all.”
Heidi Gutknecht, a park ranger at Mission Trails Regional Park advises that any incident of a mountain lion seen leaving Cowles Mountain should be reported to Mission Trails staff, or to U.S. Fish and Wildlife offices. Police contact is appropriate when a large animal is accidentally hit and its body poses a traffic hazard.
In cases of direct contact, Ranger Gutknecht has some recommendations.
“Stay calm. Do not run. Do not approach it,” she said. “Hold your ground and raise your arms up and out to the sides, making yourself appear larger. If it approaches you, yell loudly. On the off-chance that it should try to attack, fight back. Report the sighting/encounter to on-site staff and local wildlife agencies.”
Johanning said his posting of his “close encounter” video was a “positive experience.”
“If you’re sharing with others and it gets people thinking, and sparks involvement, it’s a great thing,” he said. “I’m glad the mountain lion is safe and hope it stays safe. These intelligent creatures deserve our very best effort at preserving their wild space.”
— Audrey F. Baker is a former trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park and is currently embarking on a freelance writing career. Reach her at email@example.com.