Mountain Lions, Silent Neighbors at Lake Tahoe - Tahoe Quarterly
You're five miles into a solo mountain bike ride in the woods near South Lake Tahoe's Kingsbury Grade, tooling up a long slope, when suddenly you feel a buzz in your gut. It's a sensation that someone—or something—is watching you. The feeling defies logic because you don't hear anything strange. If something were there, a hiker or a black bear perhaps, wouldn't you at least hear a grunt or a twig crack? Not if it is a mountain lion.
Most of us have been led to believe that mountain lions inhabit the transitional zones of the mountain foothills, where they hide in the brush and capture deer, their preferred prey. While that is true, they also like porcupines, beaver and even skunks—all of which, along with deer, populate the Tahoe Basin.
Field observations indicate more lions live around Lake Tahoe than many people think. And they are not just making fair-weather visits. Last February, Nevada biologists were informed that a young mountain lion was hanging around Incline Village. It was spotted three times by three different residents, including Jan Dyer, who lives near a brushy stream environment zone.
"It was not a kitty," says Dyer, who watched the large, long-tailed cat from an upstairs window. "It was slowly ambling its way through my yard. It sat down and swiveled its head. It was just before dusk, their normal hunting time, and I was able to observe it for some time."
Afterward, she found paw prints in her yard; mountain lion tracks are identified by oblong toe pads, an M-shaped metatarsal pad and typically an absence of claw marks. Dyer was captivated. "I felt very privileged to see it. It's their habitat. We live in their environment."
"They prefer the areas where the brush component meets the trees," notes Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesperson Chris Healy, pointing to the fact that Tahoe is not the cat's ideal environment. "We surmise the cat in Incline was basically caught by some snows."
Ideal habitat or not, mountain lions have been and are currently wandering the mountains around The Lake, though not en masse. The Incline Village sighting was only the latest in a string of interesting big cat incidents. In August 2005, a 90-pound mountain lion took a swipe at a dog (a Rhodesian ridgeback) on the South Shore. In the past 2 years, several North Shore residents have spotted lions in the Burton Creek State Park. A few years ago, a South Shore lion had an unlucky encounter with glass.
"One young mountain lion in the Zephyr Cove area jumped through a plate glass window," Healy explains. "We surmise—we don't know for sure—that this animal saw the reflection and went after it." The animal was collared by wildlife officials and monitored during the next year as it roamed between Highway 50 and South Lake Tahoe, Healy says.
The sightings don't mean Lake Tahoe residents and visitors should fear for their lives when they enter the forest. It only means people should be smart and alert, according to officials.
Mountain lions have rarely attacked humans; they usually avoid people. In fact, to date, there has never been a fatal attack in Nevada.
According to California Fish and Game Department spokesperson Patrick Foy, the reason for their disinterest in us "might be our bipedal nature—we stand on two feet and therefore pose a greater threat." If confronted by a lion in the wild, people should stand tall and shout aggressively. Don't turn and run. And be mindful that dawn and dusk hours are the most likely times for an encounter. Big cats usually stay out of sight most of the day.
In California, mountain lions have killed six people since 1890. The most recent three deaths occurred in 1994 and 2004, in El Dorado, San Diego and Orange counties, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. Nine non-fatal attacks on record with the California Fish and Game have occurred since 1986. The incidents have increased in recent decades, but so has human population.
However, wildlife incident reports—usually made when mountain lions exhibit threatening behavior or attack livestock—have recently increased dramatically. California statistics show that from 2001 to 2003, wildlife incident reports numbered less than 500. In 2004, the reports climbed to 717. The California Fish and Game Department does not have an explanation for the dramatic shift, says Foy, "but over the past 10 to 15 years, more people have left the city and moved into rural areas, bought a few acres, bought a goat or 2 and suddenly encountered a lion for the first time. The lions have been there for a long time, but the people have not."
Mountain lions are legally hunted in 11 western states, including Nevada. In 1990, California voters approved Proposition 117, banning the sport hunting of mountain lions and protecting their habitat. Since then, the proposition has survived a number of attempts to gut, amend or overturn it, including a 2005 state assembly bill, AB 24, which stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
"We don't have evidence to suggest a dramatic increase in lions, but we do have evidence to suggest at least a gradual increase since 1991 when Proposition 117 passed," Foy says. California has between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions; Nevada wildlife officials estimate a state population of 3,000 to 5,000 mountain lions.
Wildlife officials say many people who report seeing a lion have actually spotted a deer, coyote or bobcat. A mountain lion is a tawny colored, shorthaired, big cat. It weighs between 80 and 150 pounds and is anywhere from 5 to 8 feet long, nose to tail. Its tail is remarkably long, extending to one-third of its body length. It has a smallish head, small ears, large paws and a light-colored underbelly. And it purrs. It also cheeps, chirps and, during mating season, makes horrifying amorous yowls that surpass the drama and volume of the most passionate domestic cat.
Mountain lions eat primarily meat, many times feasting first on the vitamin A–rich organs. They prefer deer and elk, although they will sometimes eat each other. They bury their kill in a cache and may return regularly to it for a number of days. On average, one deer can provide one adult lion enough food for a week.
The mountain lion kills as silently and quickly as possible. It stalks and then pounces. It has little long-distance stamina and must get very close to its prey before lunging. It leaps on the back of prey and, depending on its victim's size, usually kills by twisting or biting the back of the neck. Young males fight over territory and mates. Solitary by nature, lions define their territories with "calling cards"—tree scratches or scrapes in the dirt covered with debris and sometimes urine and/or feces. Territory sizes can vary from 25 square miles, noted in areas of California where prey is abundant, to 150 square miles in arid places where food is scarce.
Mountain lions have interesting range management strategies. When an adult dies, younger males compete for its territory. When the dominant cat wins, the others move on in search of the next vacancy.
The mountain lion seen by Dyer was probably one of these wandering males, according to Healy. "Young lions are kicked out by their mothers and are set out on their own to search for a home. Every time we get an incident, it's almost always a young male between the ages of 18 and 24 months."
How many mountain lions frequent Lake Tahoe? Fish and game representatives are reluctant to guess. However, Jack Spencer Jr., supervisory wildlife biologist with the
USDA/Wildlife Services, extrapolates from deer populations and his own observations that half a dozen lions live along the eastern Sierra Range from Stateline to Reno. "I caught 2 different lions last year in 2 different areas within a week's time. For every 400 to 500 deer, we most likely have a lion," he says.
But if encroaching development begins to cause deer populations to shrink, Tahoe's mountain lion numbers will decrease, according to Healy. Indeed, that is already happening.
"Deer herds are taking a major beating," he says. "With harsh winters, droughts and new development in the ranges, the number of deer has dwindled."
Regardless of the change in their numbers, visitors and residents in the Tahoe Basin should never underestimate the possibility of a lion among us. If you'd like to arm yourself with more information, visit the Websites below. Then maybe next time you feel a strange sensation in your gut signaling an untamed presence in the woods—the sensation of wildness that compels many of us to live at Lake Tahoe—you'll stand tall and confident, and perhaps be lucky enough to spy our silent, yet sometimes deadly, neighbor.