Visiting mountain lion causes stir in Sacramento

Mountain lions, perhaps California’s most efficient and stealthy four-legged predators, have long been rumored to move quietly through Sacramento’s open spaces. Sightings pop up regularly, particularly along the American River Parkway, but are often unreliable.

Now there can be no doubt.

On Saturday, a young male mountain lion was tranquilized and captured in a residential backyard in the capital city’s Oak Park neighborhood, one of the least likely places one would expect to encounter a cougar. Oak Park is busy, densely developed and gridded by major freeways and boulevards.

Yet there it was: a 70-pound superpredator resting in the landscaped backyard at 32nd and X streets. Walk two blocks east and stroll through the front door at Sacramento Charter High School. Or go two blocks south to the Bonfare Market on Broadway to fill up your gas tank and buy a frozen burrito.

“The urban blights of drug dealing and prostitution are kind of a daily thing around here. Or at least within a few blocks, you can see it all going on,” said David Sketchley, who lives next door to the home where the mountain lion was captured. “But this is a first.”

This cougar’s visit was a tale of remarkable sightings that occurred at various hours on Saturday. It began, so far as anyone knows, at 1:35 a.m. Saturday near 58th and M streets, when the first call came into the Sacramento Police Department: A mountain lion was roaming the streets of east Sacramento. That location is a full three miles from Sketchley’s neighborhood, but less than a half-mile from the American River and the Sacramento State campus. Police officers checked the area but were unable to locate anything.

The big cat was apparently westbound through the city, because at about 3 a.m. another report came in from a motorist who was following a mountain lion south on 36th Street from Folsom Boulevard. About an hour later, while checking that area, a police lieutenant spotted the mountain lion at 36th and R streets. He lost sight of the cat after it jumped a chain-link fence near Highway 50 – not far from an auto-repair shop on Stockton Boulevard that specializes in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis.

Animal-control officers were notified, and an automated call went out to area residents advising them of the mountain lion in their midst. Then, all was quiet until darkness settled in again.

At 10:21 p.m. Saturday, a caller reported seeing a mountain lion at 32nd and X streets. The first officer to respond spotted the cat inside Mabel Furr’s fenced yard. Additional officers arrived to secure the area while waiting for a Fish and Wildlife warden.

That ended up being Lt. Patrick Foy, who brought a rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts. Foy moved to within 15 feet of the mountain lion, which faced him crouched under bushes as if ready to spring. Police officers bracketed him with weapons ready.

“I told them if the animal makes any attacking movements, go ahead and do what you’ve got to do, and I was really hoping it wasn’t going to do that,” Foy said.

The first dart struck home in the cat’s hindquarters. It “scampered off” to another location in the yard, Foy said, but the drug didn’t seem to take effect. He fired a second dart a few minutes later, and not long afterward, the cat fell quiet.

Foy transported the cougar to public land about 25 miles east of Sacramento in El Dorado County, where it was released to the wild after recovering from sedation. Foy declined to specify the location in order to protect the animal. He said the lion was “quite healthy and strong.”

The saga has sparked questions about what prompted the unusual trek: Could it be the region’s parching drought had sent the creature in search of food and water? But Foy, who is also a biologist, said that isn’t likely given that the American River Parkway has ample supplies of both. Deer are a mountain lion’s primary prey. Foy said deer are “grossly overpopulated” in the parkway because they enjoy an easy food supply of their own in the form of urban landscaping.

“I don’t really have any way of justifying scientifically that the drought is having an effect on these animals,” Foy said.

More likely, he said, the mountain lion was simply in search of territory to call its own. At about 70 pounds and 11/2 years old, the cat likely was dispersing from its mother and casting about on its own for the first time.

This theory was echoed by Lynn Cullens, associate director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a Sacramento nonprofit that works to conserve the species and educate the public. Adult male mountain lions are territorial, and each typically patrols a home range of 50 to 200 square miles.

When a young lion strikes out on its own, it must find territory that isn’t already controlled by an adult lion – or take over territory by driving out the adult. It’s possible this Sacramento visitor had traveled down the American River Parkway after being driven out of other territories.

“Given the age of the lion, it probably has a whole lot less to do with drought than it does to do with dispersal,” Cullens said.

Mountain lions enjoy a unique legal status in California intended to recognize their place in the ecosystem as an important top-level predator. Under a state law passed by voters in 1990, mountain lions are considered a protected species that cannot be killed unless they pose a clear threat to public safety.

A state law that took effect Jan. 1 reinforces those protections by requiring the Department of Fish and Wildlife, whenever possible, to capture and relocate mountain lions that wander into urban areas. Killing them is considered a last resort.

Cullens said Saturday’s incident should not prompt worry that more cougars will be touring Sacramento. Because they maintain such massive territories, mountain lions are constantly on the move, looking to protect their habitat from other lions that might try to take over. This means they never stay in one place long.

“I think this was an aberration, not a trend,” she said.

The most important lesson for residents, she said, is to be sure they don’t create habitat that attracts mountain lions. Primarily, this means not feeding deer or maintaining garden plants that attract deer. It is best, she said, to let wild animals subsist on wild foods. That is one reason the American River Parkway is preserved as open space: as habitat for wildlife and a corridor for animals to move between habitats.

“I guess it’s a bit of a wake-up call that this is Northern California, and there are big cats in the area,” Sketchley said. “This is as much their habitat as it is ours, and we’re constantly encroaching on where they live. Someday, I’d like to see one that wasn’t under a double dose of tranquilizer with a sack over his head.”

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