An adventurous young mountain lion who escaped the recent Coastal Fire and successfully traversed towns and Highway 91 has lived a ‘charmed life’ so far, but researchers who track him fear his future holds. many dangers, giving him only 50% to 60% survival rate.
For the past few weeks, the approximately 20-month-old lion has been roaming south of Highway 5 and Toll Road 73, passing through and in some cases through the communities of Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Corona del Mar. He previously ran into the open door of an Irvine apartment building.
The cat, which is being tracked with a signal from a collar, traveled more than 100 miles (as the crow flies) in about eight weeks through Southern California, traveling from the Santa Ana Mountains to the beach and back.
UPDATE: The cougar approached homes again on May 20 and was captured and brought back to the Santa Ana Mountains.
He primarily used greenbelts, rivers, and concrete culverts to get around, but he’s also the first documented cougar to successfully cross the busy Highway 91. It passed under Highway 5 and hovered along the southern edge of Toll Road 73.
“It’s pretty miraculous,” said Dr. Winston Vickers. The wildlife veterinarian has been tracking mountain lions in California for decades as part of the California Mountain Lion Project at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. “I’m worried (what happens) if it becomes difficult for him to navigate all the traffic and other hazards.”
Known as M317, the cat does what young males do: establish its own territory. While it faces danger when entering more urban areas, it also faces threats from older and larger male lions.
“If he goes back to the mountains, he will have to find a space where there are no established males,” Vickers said, adding that a lion’s territory is usually about 125 square miles. “Sometimes they have to fight to get in.”
The M317 is still at least 30 pounds lighter than most older men, who can weigh up to 160 pounds – there could be as many as five and seven living in the Santa Ana mountain range, which goes from Riverside County to San Diego County.
“They can definitely kill it,” Vickers said of the bigger cats. “The young lion might be able to run away, but if the bigger male wants to kill him, he can.”
Necklace in March
M317 got his ID in March after he was found running around Irvine. He surprised customers at a hair salon before walking through a nearby door open for ventilation at a business park. It was there that Irvine Animal Control, with the help of Dr. Scott Weldy, a Lake Forest veterinarian who cares for local wildlife and cares for large mammals at the OC Zoo, caught him.
Vickers said the M317 likely crossed a drainage channel out of the Grand Parc. Probably, the animal appeared from it in the light of day and then hid. But, something must have scared him out into the open, which then led to a chase by the police and animal control.
“He saw an open door that maybe looked like an escape hatch, and that’s when they rushed him,” Vickers said.
Weldy took the cat back to his office to observe and do a physical exam. While there, Weldy asked Vickers if he wanted a blood sample and if he had better stick it. A few days later, M317 was taken high into the Santa Ana Mountains, carrying the tracker now informing researchers of its movements.
It wasn’t long before the M317 ventured from its perch there into the rocky terrain. Since then, it has circled the entire mountain range. The cat went back west, then south, then east to Corona. That’s where he crossed Highway 91, Vickers said.
From there it goes under Hwy 5 towards Irvine, up towards the mountain range, back under 91, then heads back up into the mountains. But, then he turned around and found himself along Toll Road 241. At that point he took an unexpected detour and returned to where he was first released after his hug from Irvine.
But the range didn’t suit him – maybe because other lions already control these areas?
The M317 prowled south, weaving quietly through the Aliso and Trabuco creeks. He used a concrete flood channel to pass under Highway 5 and cut his way through the greenbelts toward Laguna Beach. His presence in this area south of Highway 5 and Toll Road 73 is the first documented sighting of a lion in 30 years.
“Occasionally other sightings were reported to parks staff,” Vickers said. “But no trail camera footage has ever surfaced or sightings by park rangers. Given that the M317 made it there, we can’t ignore that another lion did, but no positive evidence.
He was spotted by a Laguna Beach resident and police officer on May 8. Both said he reacted with appropriate fear and fled. In one case, climbing an eight-foot fence in a single jump in the backyard of a house.
But within an hour he was out of town.
“He was really moving,” Vickers said.
Just before the Coastal Fire erupted May 11 in Aliso Canyon, where it consumed 200 acres and destroyed 20 ridgetop homes, the young lion crossed the busy, winding Laguna Canyon road and s is headed north to Crystal Cove State Park.
In some cases, the chaos of firefighting and moving equipment scared a mountain lion into turning toward scorched earth, Vickers said, resulting in him getting badly burned. paws and starve or be euthanized.
The collar of M317, which typically beeps every four hours depending on its ability to connect to the satellite, shows it headed west and looked around the Buck Gulley Reserve in Corona Del Mar, which adjoins houses. He headed east again when he was as far as he could go.
From the beginning, it has stuck to greenbelts and conservation lands south of 73 and has never posed a threat to public safety, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said.
“It seems to track every little bit of habitat,” Vickers said, reviewing its tracking data on Thursday, May 19. “Now he’s going back to familiar territory where he was before in Crystal Cove State Park. He could cross 73, and he could head east and end up at 5 and try to get back into the mountains. of Santa Ana.
“He’s a wandering young man who pokes his nose into every corner, like he did when he was caught in Irvine.”
The life of a lion
Although its current habitat is abundant with food – deer and coyotes are its favorites – there are no female cougars. It spends most of its day resting – often under trees or in a canyon – then it prowls at night, which is also when it hunts.
Once it has killed, it stops and feeds for several days, and an adult deer may occupy it for a week.
What’s most significant about all of his travels, Vickers said, is that other than sighting Laguna Beach, where he was seen walking along the South Coast Highway, he’s been elusive.
“It’s a testament to how these guys are ever-present in our urban interface and rarely seen,” Vickers said. “From San Juan Capistrano to Corona del Mar, he was only seen one night.
“They can go about their business, and we can go about ours. They are not disturbed and we are not disturbed.