An adventurous young mountain lion that escaped the recent Coastal fire and has successfully crossed through cities and the 91 Freeway has lived a “charmed life” so far, but researchers tracking him worry his future holds many dangers giving him only a 50% to 60% survival rate.
For the last few weeks, the approximately 20-month-old lion has been roaming south of the 5 freeway and the 73 toll road, passing by and, in some cases through, the communities of Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Corona del Mar. Previously he ran into the open door of an Irvine building.
The cat, which is being tracked with a signal from a collar, has traversed more than 100 miles (as the crow flies) in about eight weeks across Southern California, traveling from the Santa Ana Mountains to the beach and back.
Mainly, he’s used greenbelts, rivers and concrete culverts to travel, but he’s also the first cougar documented to cross the heavily traveled 91 Freeway successfully. He’s passed under the 5 Freeway and has hovered along the southern edge of the 73 toll road.
“It’s rather miraculous,” Dr. Winston Vickers said. The UC Davis wildlife veterinarian has been tracking mountain lions in California for decades. “I’m worried (what happens) if it becomes hard for him to navigate around all the traffic and other hazards.”
Known as M317, the cat is doing what young males do: Establishing a territory of his own. While he faces danger when getting into more urban areas, he also faces threats from older and larger male lions.
“If he goes back to the mountains, he’ll have to find a space where there is no established male,” Vickers said, adding a lion’s territory typically spans some 200 square miles. “Sometimes, they have to fight their way in.”
M317 is still at least 30 pounds lighter than most older males, which can weight up to 160 pounds – there are already between five and seven living in the Santa Ana Mountain range, which goes from Riverside County to San Diego County.
“They can certainly kill him,” Vickers said of the bigger cats. “The younger lion might be able to get away, but if the larger male wants to kill him, he can.”
Collared in March
M317 got his ID in March after he was found running around Irvine. He startled clients at a hair salon before running through a nearby door propped open for ventilation in a business park. That’s where Irvine Animal Control, with help from Dr. Scott Weldy, a Lake Forest veterinarian who treats local wildlife and cares for the large mammals at the OC Zoo, caught him.
Vickers said M317 probably traveled through a drainage channel out of the Great Park. Likely, the animal appeared from it in daylight and then hid. But, something must have spooked him into the open, which then led to a chase by police and animal control.
“He saw an open door that may have seemed like an escape hatch, and that’s when they darted him,” Vickers said.
Weldy took the cat back to his office for observation and to do a physical exam. While there, Weldy asked Vickers if he wanted a blood sample and if he had an interest in collaring him. A few days later, M317 was taken high into the Santa Ana Mountains, wearing the tracker now telling researchers about his movements.
It wasn’t long before M317 ventured from his perch there in the rocky terrain. Since that time, he’s made a complete circuit of the mountain range. The cat headed back west, then south, then east to Corona. That’s where he crossed the 91 freeway, Vickers said.
On the move
From there, he crossed under the 5 freeway toward Irvine, went back up to the mountain range, crossed back under the 91, and then headed for the mountains again. But, then he turned around and ended up along the 241 toll road. At that point, he took an unexpected detour and traveled back up to where he was first set free after his Irvine caper.
But the range didn’t suit him – maybe because other lions already control those areas?
M317 prowled back south, slinking quietly through Aliso and Trabuco creeks. He used a concrete flood channel to go under the 5 freeway and wound his way across greenbelts toward Laguna Beach.
He was spotted by a resident and a Laguna Beach police officer on May 8. Both reported that he responded with appropriate fear and ran off. In one case, scaling an eight-foot fence in a single leap into a home’s backyard.
But in one hour, he was out of the city.
“He was really moving,” Vickers said.
Just before the Coastal fire broke out on May 11 in Aliso Canyon, where it consumed 200 acres and destroyed 20 ridgetop homes, the young lion made it across the busy and curvy Laguna Canyon Road and headed north to Crystal Cove State Park.
In some cases, the chaos of firefighting and equipment moving around has scared a mountain lion into turning back toward scorched earth, Vickers said, causing them to burn their paws severely and leading to their death from starvation or needing to be euthanized.
M317’s collar, which typically emits a signal every four hours depending on its ability to connect with the satellite, shows he had headed west and looked around the Buck Gulley Reserve in Corona Del Mar, which abuts to homes. He headed east again when he got as far as he could go there.
All along, he has stuck greenbelts and conservation lands when south of the 73 and has never posed a public safety threat, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.
“He seems to follow every little scrap of habitat,” Vickers said, reviewing his tracking data on Thursday, May 19. “Now, he’s going back to familiar territory where he’s been before up in Crystal Cove State Park. He might cross the 73, and he might head east and end up at the 5 and try to make his way back to the Santa Ana Mountains.”
“He’s a wandering young male that sticks his nose in any cranny, just like he did when he was caught in Irvine.”
Life of a lion
While his present habitat has plenty of food – favorite choices include deer and coyotes – there are no female cougars. He spends most of his day resting – often under trees or in a canyon – and then is on the prowl at night, which is also when he hunts.
Once he’s made a kill, he stops and feeds for several days, and a full-grown deer can keep him busy for a week.
What is most significant about all his travels, Vickers said, is that other than the Laguna Beach sighting, where he was seen walking along South Coast Highway, he’s been elusive.
“It’s a testament to how these guys are always around in our urban interface and seldom seen,” Vickers said. “From San Juan Capistrano to Corona del Mar, he was just seen that one night.
“They can go about their business, and we can go about ours. They’re not bothered, and we’re not bothered.”
Source: Orange County Register