Mountain lion kittens located with the help of GPS tracking technology

Mountain lion kittens located with the help of GPS tracking technology

Tracking the movements of mountain lions using GPS collars is integral to understanding the population and ecology of such an elusive yet charismatic cat living amongst us here in the Valley of the Moon. The Living with Lions project had an exciting beginning to 2021, capturing and collaring five lions that will allow us to further monitor the fascinating behavior of Sonoma County’s lions, while also helping to reduce deadly run-ins between lions and local pets and livestock.

I often receive phone calls after residents’ sheep and goats are killed, which recently led to the capture of large male mountain lions P24 and P25 in the Healdsburg and Cazadero area, as well as an interesting female in the Bennett Valley/ Penngrove region. We’ve followed this cat for over four years using trail cameras. Video footage shows that she has some sort of congenital neurological condition affecting the way she walks—we affectionately call her “Wobbly.”

It is amazing to consider how this lion has survived; now, with the aid of a GPS tracking device sending researchers hourly location data, it will be possible to piece together how exactly she does it. Apart from the unprotected sheep she killed, in a short space of time we’ve learned that she caught an opossum and a fully-grown deer. It was also possible to determine from the GPS location data that she has mated with the local male, P13. This sort of information is simply impossible to obtain without the help of these tracking collars.

Mountain lion collar data also helped us find a new litter of kittens belonging to the Napa female P4, first collared in February 2017. I keep a careful eye on all the lions’ GPS movements and spotted a classic denning pattern in February. After ensuring that the mom was not around, and being careful not to disturb anything, I visited the site and found a pair of 14-day-old kittens nestled in a madrone bush.

Closer to home, Luna (P16) had killed and was eating a coyote, which I located after tracking her movements. Readers might recall that Luna gave birth to a single cub in August 2020 in the Kenwood area east of Hwy. 12. A trap was set to capture her and change her fading collar battery. However, instead of trapping Luna, her cub went in, providing a great opportunity to obtain DNA data. An ear tag was placed to identify the female mountain lion in the future — P27.

Though now nearly eight months old, this cub is not out of the woods yet, as mountain lion kittens have only a 50% survival rate within their first 12 months. For now, she’s tagging along with mom in the Glen Ellen area and perfecting her big cat skills until she disperses between 12 and 18 months old.

Learn more about Living with Lions or the Trail Camera Project >