By Lauren Foliart and Aliyah Kovner
City on a Hill Press Reporters

Many people are uncomfortable with the thought that a large predator could be lurking just outside of their homes and campus. Yet the reality is that the mountain lion, or puma, is a crucial part of the California ecosystem. However, human fear and misunderstanding of these majestic cats has put them into a vulnerable position.

To better understand the reclusive species, UC Santa Cruz started the Bay Area Puma Tracking Project. Launched late last spring, the project, headed by environmental studies assistant professor and ecologist Chris Wilmers, has been tracking pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains to obtain data concerning the felines’ movements and behavior.

Trekking deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains, Wilmers and his team meticulously search for any sign of puma activity. They employ a variety of techniques, from surveying mud for footprints to scanning the canopy for a flash of movement.

This topic of research has become critical as human development has progressively encroached upon the puma territory. Felidae, a wildcat conservation group based in the Bay Area, is a major collaborator with the project.

“Our hope is that the increased understanding gained from this study will help convince people of the importance of protecting the puma species and their habitats, and will provide a clear vision for how we can best co-exist with these important keystone predators,” said Zara McDonald, director of Felidae.

Terrie Williams, UCSC professor, ecologist and evolutionary biologist, developed a motion-sensitive chip that allows information to be stored. The chip, which uses a technology similar to that in video games, documents a cat’s activities, from hunting to mating, in the restricted area the pumas inhabit.

Since its inception, the project has tagged four specimens, two male and two female, and supplied them with GPS collars.

The collision between human and puma habitats is inevitable as commercial and residential development increase. This urgency heightens the need to find corridors for the pumas before they become completely isolated from other ecosystems, McDonald said.

“For a large-bodied animal, they need to be able to get to other ranges. The Santa Cruz Mountains aren’t enough,” Wilmers said. “Without connectivity between other ranges, such as the Diablo Mountains, they will go extinct eventually.”

Inbreeding due to isolation of animal populations can lead to the extinction of a species. Infertility and genetic mutations resulting from a limited gene pool can weaken the adaptability of the population.

When sufficient data has been gathered by Wilmers, Williams and the team, they hope to approach land trusts and Caltrans to find means of giving the felines ways to travel through human areas safely.

Caltrans can set aside spaces for culverts and wildlife overpasses, and land trusts may be able to change some easements in order to prevent development in some areas.

No known fatalities due to puma attacks have been recorded in the Bay Area in centuries, but instances of pumas entering backyards and killing people’s pets or livestock have been getting the animals in trouble among the human inhabitants, Wilmers said. However, the top predator is an essential part of maintaining the the local ecosystem.

Wilmers, who previously reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone, said the two species perform similar tasks in their respective environments.

When the wolves were reintroduced, elk in the park stopped propagating by the streams, which had led to stream erosion. In the case of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the absence of the top predator would lead to an unbalanced natural equilibrium.

“Mule deer and black-tailed deer populations [in California] are three times higher than the [previous] post settlement figures,” ecology teaching assistant Mitchell Mulks said. “Predators have an impact on the grazers in an environment. Imagine the grazing impact those deer will have on seedling trees.”

The goal of the Bay Area Puma Project is to figure a way to help the pumas before the environment reaches an unhealthy status. With only less than a year of research thus far conducted, Wilmers and his team have already discovered significant data. The project is only, however, at its preliminary stages, they said.

“There’s still a lot to learn,” Wilmers said. “We’ve figured out how to catch the animals and where they’re hanging out. We’ve also learned that the Santa Cruz mountain lions are a diverse community, but the results of the study are still going to be forthcoming.”