Chasing big cats: Meet the first mountain lions caught for research in SLO County

The first two mountain lions ever caught for research in San Luis Obispo County are a female cub that walked into a trap in the Irish Hills and an adult male that led trackers on a wild-cat chase in the rural ranching community of Pozo.

They were grabbed by Justin Dellinger, a California Department of Fish & Wildlife environmental scientist who’s working with Wildlife Services to gather data across the state for a massive mountain lion project, an effort to understand how many mountain lions are in the state, how they use their habitat, and what threats they face in each region.

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Much of the state is mountain lion territory, yet little is known about the predators outside of a few areas – like the Santa Monica Mountains – where nonprofits, universities and State Parks have studied lions. State Fish & Wildlife is working to fill in the gaps.

Their work on the Central Coast has only just begun; Dellinger plans to be in the area and the Eastern Sierra on and off for the next year before heading to the open lands of Anza Borrego or the Tehachapi Mountains.

“There’s definitely lion habitat in SLO County. I’d say depending on conditions, it can be prime,” said Dellinger, who stays in an old cabin on the Avenales Ranch preserve near Pozo when he’s gathering data in the region.

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Gathering data, in this case, means chasing cougars through the backcountry until he’s face-to-face with the lion and its meat-hook-like claws.

He’s hiked through the Santa Lucia Range in the early morning hours, hunting for lions by scanning the ground for fresh tracks and scat. He responded to ranches, where freshly killed livestock showed the markings of a mountain lion kill. He set traps in areas where lions were spotted near urban areas and he placed trail cameras in rugged terrain.

Chasing big cats

Mountain lions are also known as cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts. By any name, they run fast, jump high and are natural killers.

How do you catch a predator like this? With the help of well-trained hounds and a dart loaded with sedatives, Dellinger has collared 38 in the state since December of 2015.

He caught the first two mountain lions on the Central Coast with his loyal partners – a houndsman and his dogs – and by working with San Luis Obispo officials and the owner of a local ranch.

Only the adult was big enough to collar with a GPS monitor, which will provide researchers information about its habits and territory.

At just 25 to 30 pounds, the young cub frolicking through the foothills west of San Luis Obispo would have been weighed down by the heavy equipment so she was marked with an ear tag instead. Dellinger hopes in the future to catch the mom or the cubs when they’re bigger.

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Justin Dellinger holds the head of a male mountain lion he caught and collared in Pozo. Justin Dellinger

SM1: San Luis Male 1

Estimated to be 3 years old and fairly small at 120 pounds, this adult male was collared in January with a GPS monitor on a ridge above Pozo after he lead several hounds on a fast, but short chase.

Dellinger heard that a lion had killed an alpaca on a ranch and told the owner to leave the carcass out over night. Sure enough, the lion returned, leaving fresh tracks in the soft mud made in the night’s rain.

The ranch owner, having suffered a loss, could have gotten a depredation permit to kill the lion, but instead offered it to research.

In the early morning, specially trained hounds hot on the fresh lion tracks chased SM1 up a nearby ridge and into a tree. The lion got spooked, jumped and took off, but the dogs treed it again after a short run. Again it jumped.

Finally, Dellinger and his partner got close enough to shoot it with a drug-loaded dart. The lion wassedated for no less than an hour, and Dellinger had time to check its vitals, collar it, draw blood, pick off ticks for tests, and take measurements before it woke up.

“I was within two feet when he stood up and walked away,” Dellinger said.

A few weeks later, SM1 was seen strolling by a camera owned by The Land Conservancy of SLO County’s wildlife camera project on a private Santa Margarita Ranch property.

SM1 camera
SM1, the mountain lion that Justin Dellinger caught and collared near Pozo, is captured by a wildlife camera placed as part of the Land Conservancy of SLO County’s Learning Among the Oaks Program at Santa Margarita Ranch. The Land Conservancy of SLO County

SF1: San Luis Female 1

This girl cub was estimated at 3 or 4 months old and between 25 and 30 pounds when she was caught in January in a trap left for her mom in the Irish Hills. City officials became aware that a family group – believed to be a mom and two cubs – was feeding on deer in the area.

Two traps were set with deer carcasses, but SF1 was the only one to walk in. When Dellinger arrived, he used a jab stick to drug and immobilize her before attaching an ear tag.

“She was real young. She still had her baby teeth and faint spotting,” Dellinger said.

She could be one of the two cubs caught just weeks earlier on security camera footage knocking on the front door of a nearby home in Prefumo Creek Estates.

There’s no way to tell if it is the same animal, because the angle of the camera makes it difficult to estimate size, Dellinger said.

He’s found evidence of as many as five mountain lions in the Irish Hills.

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State Fish & Wildife scientist Justin Dellinger placed an ear tag on this female mountain lion cub he trapped in the Irish Hills of San Luis Obispo. Justin Dellinger

What he’s learned so far

Scientists with the state program found DNA evidence of ten lion sub-populations, or genetic clusters, in the state. The Central Coast sub-populations stretches from north Ventura County to north Monterey County – meaning the lions share genes, as if they have the same great-great-grandfather.

Whether this local population is growing or is threatened by either drought, development, disease, or isolation caused by busy highways, simply isn’t known because there’s no data. The statewide mountain lion project is working to collect baseline information on population, genetics, and habitat use to begin to answer some of those questions.

In his first few trips to the Central Coast this year, Dellinger hasn’t found as many lions as he expected he would.

“SLO County is rapidly developing, which is impacting lions. We’re just not sure yet to what degree it’s impacting the local population,” he said. Also, “drought may be really impacting lions and other wildlife.”

Where there’s deer, there’s lions. And he hasn’t seen a lot of signs of deer.

“You need acorns to make deer. Need deer to make lions. Need water for acorns,” he said. “Drought has taken a toll.”

In a few years, Dellinger and his team should be able to tell us about local lions, including how many claim the area as their territory.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan