Mountain lion spotted on Rattlesnake Mountain

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It appears a mountain lion has taken up residence on Rattlesnake Mountain, in the Winter Gardens community of Lakeside.

Rattlesnake Mountain is the common name of the peak north of Pepper Road and west of Winter Gardens Boulevard (where the Christmas star is seen every year). Much of the mountain is permanent open space (overseen by the Center for Natural Lands Management) and most of it is in the City of Santee, known as the community of Sky Ranch. But the eastern slope and the homes along Golden Ridge Road is Lakeside.

It appears a mountain lion has taken up residence on Rattlesnake Mountain, in the Winter Gardens community of Lakeside.

Rattlesnake Mountain is the common name of the peak north of Pepper Road and west of Winter Gardens Boulevard (where the Christmas star is seen every year). Much of the mountain is permanent open space (overseen by the Center for Natural Lands Management) and most of it is in the City of Santee, known as the community of Sky Ranch. But the eastern slope and the homes along Golden Ridge Road is Lakeside.

The sightings began in July 2016. Kyle Michael, a resident on Green Lane, caught the cat’s image on his home’s security cameras. He shared the video with the neighborhood via the Nextdoor.com website. Taken at about 4:30 a.m., the clip showed a feline with a long tail meandering down a stairway at the side of the house.

(NOTE: If you think you’ve seen a mountain lion, but you didn’t notice the tail, you probably haven’t seen a mountain lion.)

KNSD News 7 picked up the story in late November and sent a reporter out to interview the resident. The news station replayed the original security video and another clip taken as the cat runs down the hill and into the neighborhood. The date and time stamp on the second clip clearly shows July 30, 2016 at 5:14 a.m.

The resident told the news reporter he had seen the lion as recently as just a couple weeks prior to the interview, at about 10:00 a.m. or so. He expressed understandable concern for his family, especially his two-year-old child. He also stated he used to hear coyotes howling every night, but that they had gone silent since the mountain lion sighting.

The lion was reported on Nextdoor.com in late December, apparently prowling a chicken coop on Gardena Road at about two in the morning. The cat fled when the resident came outside with a flashlight. About two weeks later, it was seen in the morning at Walnut Road and Sapota Drive. That witness (again documented on Nextdoor.com) compared the size to that of her German shepherd.

It just so happens that I live about 600 feet from where this lion was first photographed. Concerned, I forwarded the video and story to Mr. Robin Parks, a retired NCIS Special Agent and a Field Representative for the Mountain Lion Foundation of California. Parks, in turn, forwarded the video to their number one mountain lion expert for review. The finding: it does appear to be a lion, “but apparently a very young one who is not doing so well, for whatever reason.”

So how unusual is it to have a resident mountain lion in an east county neighborhood? Not all that unusual at all, according to Parks. While is it difficult to estimate just how many of these cats live in San Diego County, it could be as many as 200. “But nobody really knows,” he added.

“Cougars live by stealth,” Parks said. “They generally avoid contact with humans and with other cougars and they stake out home ranges that can be as large as 100 square miles. There are probably a few more out there (in the county) than we might think, but for sure there isn’t one behind every rock, and their numbers are declining due to land development and other encroachments into their habitat.”

Mountain lions have been reported all over the county, mostly in the far eastern regions, but also in areas such as Mission Trails Park and even La Mesa. Sightings and attacks (though rare) are often what make the news headlines. What you don’t hear about is how some housing developments in a cougar’s home range are learning to handle the issue. “They have an unspoken working agreement with the cats:  you don’t bother us, we don’t bother you, and we won’t call the cops.”

Of course, a big cat’s target is usually our pets and livestock, which can make people wary and pretty angry. So residents living here on the edge of the wilderness (as I like to call it) have to think ahead and live a little smarter. It’s not just a potential mountain lion you have to be concerned for – it’s coyotes, raccoons, and even loose and feral dogs and cats that will prey on your pets. And, if you weren’t aware, there are people out in our neighborhood after dark, prowling our cars and our mailboxes. Let’s not focus all our attention on the mountain lion.

Interestingly, while cougars mostly like to eat deer, they are just as fond of coyotes for a good meal. In fact, coyotes are their number two favorite food after deer.

And there are a lot of coyotes left on Rattlesnake Mountain, of that I can personally attest – I see, hear, and photograph them all the time. But it is possible they have moved away from where the big cat seems to be staying.

Though they instill a great primal fear within most humans, cougar-human encounters are rare. Attacks on humans are even rarer and attacks resulting in fatality rarer still. Since the late 1880’s, there have only been about 20 confirmed human deaths by cougar in the United States and Canada combined. For people who live, work or play in cougar country, here are some basic safety tips you need to know:

Cougars are most active at dusk and dawn – that is when they do most of their hunting.  Limiting outside activities (hiking, jogging, etc.) and being alert to your surroundings during these times can be very important.

Cougar attacks on humans are almost always on lone individuals, not on pairs or groups. Having a hiking buddy and keeping children and pets very close at hand and in a group can discourage a cougar’s interest.

Clear away brush and other vegetation from around your house, as it could be used for cover. Don’t feed pets outside. Bring your pets inside after dark and secure livestock at night whenever possible.

If you encounter a cougar, don’t panic. Don’t run (it triggers a prey response and you’ll never outrun it), don’t crouch or bend over. Stand tall; make direct eye contact, try to appear as large as you can, yell and scream and throw rock or sticks. These actions tend to lead the cougar to think you are not something included in his prescribed diet.

If you are actually attacked by a cougar, “fight like hell.” Studies of cougar attacks consistently show that the harder and longer a victim fights back with any weapon or means available, the better the chances are for survival.

If Golden Ridge residents are asking themselves whether they should be afraid, the best answer is: they should be prepared. This list of safety tips works equally well as crime prevention tools for our unwelcome two-legged visitors.

Animal and wildlife control agencies have been notified, but they usually don’t respond if the animal hasn’t caused any harm. Killing the cat outright is not a solution either (though one Nextdoor.com commentator joked about shooting the lion) and can result in arrest, prosecution, and a hefty fine. 

Information and resources regarding cougar biology, habitat preservation, cougar statistics, more safety tips, safeguarding livestock, volunteer opportunities, ongoing legal and public awareness efforts, and the passion and politics that so often follow cougars can all be found at the Mountain Lion Foundation’s website, www.mountainlion.org. 

For interested individuals, Robin Parks is hosting “Mountain Lions 101” on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at Mission Trails Regional Park. The 1:00 p.m. class is free and the public is invited. Seating at the Visitor Center auditorium is limited, so space can be confirmed by calling Ranger Rebecca Smart at (619) 668-2747.

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