Late last year, a runner on Morro View Trail in the Irish Hills stumbled across a deer freshly killed, dragged and cached by a mountain lion, prompting city officials to close public access to the area.
Weeks later, a pair of mountain lions cubs were caught on security camera footage banging on the front door of a home in a nearby subdivision.
Pet cats in that neighborhood have gone missing, a neighbor’s camera snapped a photo of a large lion slinking through the yard in the night, and another early-morning runner caught a glimpse of a lion on the street.
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That’s all made nearby resident Liz Anderson a little more cautious.
“I am protective of my kids playing by the creek. I don’t like them going down there,” said Anderson, whose camera caught the lion cubs at her door. “But, my husband still mountain bikes and hikes up there.”
Without her security camera, she may not have realized how close lions live.
In reality, if you live in San Luis Obispo County, you are in or near potential mountain lion territory.
Mountain lion country
Mountain lion sightings (or suspected sightings) in SLO County are more common than many people may know. More than 100 were reported to local law enforcement agencies in the last few years, though many are unconfirmed.
Hikers see them on Bishop Peak, students report sightings near Cal Poly, and residents around Laguna Lake Golf Course encounter mountain lions.
Public safety call logs gathered by The Tribune show frequent reported sightings near population centers, a pattern that isn’t surprising because people in urban areas are more likely to alert authorities.
“People on large ranches, they don’t even think twice of seeing a mountain lion,” California Fish & Wildlife biologist Bob Stafford said. “When people are in urban areas, it’s more of an anomaly.”
Lions tend to rest during the day and remain elusive. Interactions with humans are rare. We’re reminded of their presence when trail cameras catch cougars on the move or when rural residents wake up in the morning to find their animals have been killed by the predator.
Often, they prey on deer in the large open spaces of the county, including on the 900-acre Pismo Preserve owned by The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. Trail cameras there and on the privately owned Santa Margarita Ranch have picked up dozens of photos of the wild cats.
“They can be almost anywhere,” said Cal Poly biology professor John Perrine. “This whole area of the county is potential mountain lion habitat.”
How many are here?
How many lions live in the county and how they use the habitat is unknown. They’ve never been studied here. The only state data available show an average of four mountain lions a year are killed in the county through permits issued when a lion kills domestic animals.
Soon, we’ll learn a lot more.
For the first time, a scientist with California Fish and Wildlife is researching Central Coast cougars to determine a minimum population density by collaring and tracking them as part of a statewide mountain lion project.
“There’s definitely lion habitat in SLO County. I’d say depending on conditions, it can be prime,” Justin Dellinger, a senior environmental scientist with the state, said on a recent visit to the Central Coast.
He’s already collared a male lion near Pozo and found evidence of at least five lions living in the Irish Hills that stretch from San Luis Obispo behind Avila Beach to Montaña de Oro.
Perrine, who studies how large mammals move around major roads that cut through animal habitat, also captured photos of mountain lions over the years with trail cameras.
He expects research will find a low density of lions in the area, “each of which have a large territory.”
Should you be scared?
Those worried about living in such close proximity to this apex predator should be aware of this: Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare.
There were three fatal mountain lion attacks and 12 nonfatal attacks in California between 1986 and 2014, according to Fish and Wildlife. Those numbers are miniscule when compared to serious dog bites, for example, which in 2015 sent 39,000 people to California emergency rooms.
“If mountain lions wanted to attack people, it would happen every day. It’s an extremely rare occurrence, even more rare, given how often people are probably near a lion,” Perrine said.
It can happen, however. One of the rare incidents occurred on the Central Coast in March 1992 when a mountain lion mauled a 9-year-old boy at Gaviota State Park in Santa Barbara County. That lion was killed two weeks later.
The next year, media reported that a mountain lion attacked a boy near a stream somewhere in the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. However, the boy’s injuries were not verified.
If you see a mountain lion, don’t run, crouch, or do anything to mimic the lion’s prey, which could trigger a predatory response. Instead, appear larger than you are and give them a path to escape. Pick up dogs and children.
Contact is bad news for mountain lions
There have been a handful of lions in San Luis Obispo County who made the deadly mistake of wandering too close to people.
In 2006, Michael Mendez of Los Osos was driving a street sweeper near the county courthouse in San Luis Obispo when "all of a sudden, from the bushes, a mountain lion jumps right out in front of my truck," he said, according to Tribune archives.
The 120-pound cat was shot by police when it made an aggressive move toward them.
Two other lions were shot to protect public safety after they approached people at Lopez Lake and in Atascadero.
Perhaps no one is more aware of the lion’s presence than those who keep animals in rural lands, as documented in wildlife incident reports kept by the state.
While hunting mountain lions is illegal, the state is required to issue “take” permits to people whose domestic animals were proven to have been killed by a lion. Between 2001 and 2017, 73 lions have been killed in San Luis Obispo County through depredation permits.
Two years ago February, a man who keeps goats near Lake Nacimiento found an animal’s neck was broken and a large wound near its abdomen exposed vital organs that had been fed upon by its killer: a suspected lion.
In 2015, 17 sheep and four goats were found slaughtered in or near their pen in Arroyo Grande. A lion was suspected due to teeth marks on the animals and signs that at least one animal had been dragged 40 feet, consistent with a lion’s habit of caching its kill.
Similar scenes were witnessed in Santa Margarita, Creston, Paso Robles and Atascadero. In each of those cases and many more, a permit was issued to kill the suspected predator.
One note: Lions don’t always win. A mountain lion attempting to snatch a piglet a few years ago was instead crushed to death against a fence by a 550-pound sow, according to Stafford.
Why mountain lions are important
As the top predator in the food chain, mountain lions play a vital role in helping to maintain the balance of their ecosystems.
From providing food to other species, to controlling populations of mid-level predators like skunks by providing competition for prey, “they help to keep the intricate food web in balance,” said Lynn Cullens, who directs the Mountain Lion Foundation.
“Mountain lions stabilize populations of prey and competitors and provide food in the form of carrion for many irreplaceable species. They help to keep the intricate food web in balance,” Cullen said.
“Over the long term, American ecosystems without the benefit of mountain lions have fewer species occupying fewer ecological niches,” she said.
Without lions, she said, “it is a poorer environment, severely degraded by losses that cascade down to threaten birds and blossoms, beetles and butterflies.”