Let Me Introduce You To -- Johanna Turner and Chris Wilmer

Photo by Johanna Turner, Nikita Cityscape 3, 2018
"Yes, she does live this close to one of the largest
cities on the planet.  And she does so with grace." -- Johanna Turner,
in describing the puma she calls Nikita.
Johanna Turner and Dr. Chris Wilmer probably know each other, though they don't work directly with one another.  I've come to learn a great deal about the work each is doing to document the lives of cougars, also know as pumas and mountains lions, living in close proximity to human development in California.  Chris focuses on the areas surrounding Santa Cruz while Johanna's expertise is in the area surrounding Burbank.

Johanna and Chris are both working to raise awareness about mountain lions and the need for wildlife corridors to protect the big cats.  Mountain lions used to have expansive ranges but fragmentation of that historic range is leading to genetic abnormalities due to a lack of genetic diversity.  In addition, as cats try to traverse highways to reach potential new territories, the cats often experience fatal collisions with cars.

 Johanna uses the incredible imagery captured by her wildlife camera trap to reveal the majesty of these big cats, a project that began out of personal curiosity and has led to joint efforts with the Arroyos and Foothills Conservancy.  Chris is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Principal Investigator of the Santa Cruz Puma Project.

Image from Santa Cruz Puma Project blog

Chris shared some interesting experiment data during the ZOOM meeting I attended with him a few weeks ago.  It might sound scary to learn there are such amazing hunters living close by humans, but experiments repeatedly confirmed that the big cats actually run away from the sounds of humans.  In fact, pumas that live close to humans may have to hunt as much as 50% more since they will abandon their kills to avoid human contact.

When top predators are removed from the ecosystem, I'm sure you know that the entire ecosystem suffers.  The decline in cougar habitat has certainly accounted for a large decrease in the puma population.  Sadly, so has hunting.  But more passive encounters are on the upswing with potentially fatal results as well.  Mountain lions  are being spotted with mange, a potentially fatal skin disease, as a result of rodenticides.  The poison accumulates in ever growing quantities as it travels up the food chain, causing serious disease in these apex predators.

I've hiked in California mountain lion habitat several times and have only once been aware of a mountain lion. I suspect my husband and I surprised the cat and it quickly slunk away before we could do anything more than say, "There's a mountain lion!"  Poof.  It was gone.  Amazing.  Once, while sleeping outside at night, we heard a female caterwauling for a mate.  It woke us up and, for a split second, it was terrifying.  Then it was totally cool. We jumped up and down like kids on a sugar high.

In more wild habitat, cougars are typically crepuscular, but they have adapted to almost exclusive nocturnal hunting and activity when they live close to humans.  I encourage you to look at Johanna's amazing photography that reveal these creatures, and others, as they live life at night.  You can track the comings and goings of specific cats on the Santa Cruz Puma Project website, which illustrates how these cats try desperately to stay away from us within significantly diminished pockets of forest.

Turner and Wilmer, along so many others, are doing incredibly important, painstaking, backbreaking and, occasionally, heartbreaking work on behalf of these remarkable creatures.  Perhaps now, as we have bit more time to relish and appreciate the intricacies and beauty of nature, we can support more people who are working to keep nature in balance, which will benefit us all in the long run.

I swear the mountain lion was just there.  It moved smoothly and
quickly across the trail, jumped the creek (invisible to you to
to the right) and disappeared.  2017.