To catch a cougar, University of California, Santa Cruz field biologist Paul Houghtaling recommends roadkill. Deer, to be precise, preferably aged for less than a week. Post a motion-activated camera nearby and be patient: Once cougars find the prize, they usually return to feed several nights in a row.
On a cool California night in early April, Houghtaling set up his remote camera in the mountains above Santa Cruz at Laurel Curve, a popular spot for cougars and their prey. A few hours later, the camera captured a young cougar chewing on the deer carcass. The next day, Houghtaling and a team of biologists hauled a box trap the size of a small phone booth into the brush and dragged the deer inside.
At 7 p.m., just as the sunlight was fading from the sky, a transponder on the trap signaled that the young male from the night before was back for seconds. “We didn’t have to wait very long at all,” Houghtaling says.
After tranquilizing the cougar using a long pole, they lay the 100-pound animal on a tarp, drew blood for DNA analysis, tagged the cat’s ear and strapped a high-tech collar equipped with a GPS device and motion sensor around its neck.
A few hundred yards from where they worked, evening rush hour on California’s busy Highway 17 was just winding down. For commuters and beachgoers, the 23-mile stretch of road is a critical connection between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. But for the hundred or so cougars living in the rugged Santa Cruz mountains, the four-lane thoroughfare, divided in places by tall medians, is a formidable barrier that threatens their long-term survival.
Typical adult male mountain lions need about 100 square miles to call their own. But the highway makes it nearly impossible for cougars in different areas to mingle and for young males to disperse. Fourteen mountain lions have been hit and killed trying to cross Highway 17 since 2007, three of them near Laurel Curve.
“Males wander around looking for vacant territory,” Houghtaling says. “They’re just looking for a home.” In one extreme case elsewhere, a male ventured from the Black Hills to Connecticut.
Cougar numbers in California have risen after a state ban on hunting, and the cats are struggling to find territory in densely populated regions like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. In the Santa Monica Mountains near LA, the fragmentation of cougar habitat has gotten so bad, there’s been a spike in cougar-on-cougar violence and inbreeding.
The data from captured Santa Cruz mountain lions in recent years show preserving and reconnecting patches of habitat is key to their health and long-term survival. Now, local officials and biologists in the Bay Area are using that information to create what they hope will be a new lifeline for the cats: a wildlife crossing under Highway 17.
The project, overseen by the California Department of Transportation and expected to cost at least $10 million, is essentially a large tunnel. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, a local conservation group paying for part of the project, is also protecting key habitat on both sides of the highway through land purchases and easements.
Houghtaling and his team hope the new cougar connector will bring the Santa Cruz cougars some much-needed room to move — and spare them the fate of their cousins down the coast.