by Gretchen Kell
About half of California is prime mountain lion territory, and the Berkeley/Oakland hills ‚ including the high and hilly slopes of campus ‚ are no exception.
To inform students, faculty, staff and visitors of this fact, the campus will place educational signs later this month at the entrance to its trailheads and at hillside visitor sites including the Lawrence Hall of Science, Panoramic Hill and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
The approximately 12- by 18-inch aluminum signs will include a picture of a mountain lion, one of North America's largest cats, as well as tips on what to do if you encounter one.
"People need to know there is a chance, albeit small, that lions may be seen in the area, since part of the campus is mountain lion habitat," said Professor Reginald Barrett, a wildlife biologist and mountain lion expert. "They need to know what to do if they see one and how to report a sighting."
Barrett is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Mountain Lion Awareness, a campus group that first met last February to consider how best to educate people about the potential ‚ no matter how remote ‚ for mountain lion encounters on campus.
Informational brochures on mountain lions soon will be available at the campus Police Department, and there is a new, detailed form that the police will fill out when a sighting is reported.
The signs will encourage people who spot a mountain lion on campus property to phone campus police. The signs are not meant to create fear among people, but to advise that "nature is our backyard. We need to be aware that mountain lions are part of the environment we're encroaching on," said Dale Sanders, a senior planner with Physical and Environmental Planning Department who, along with Barrett, launched the educational effort.
"The public will become our research assistants," said Sanders. "When the calls come in, we may be able to verify the sighting, gather ecological data, make a cast of a footprint or take a photograph. The sightings also will help us make better management decisions and better understand these animals."
For years, there have been occasional sightings of mountain lions ‚ as well as their partially consumed kill ‚ on campus land, but few of them were reported to police, and no accurate record exists.
In all the reported cases, neither the California Department of Fish and Game nor campus officers were able to find the lion that was seen.
"Lions are very secretive and good at hiding," said Barrett. "They are incredibly good at staying away from people and are rarely seen."
Male adult mountain lions can be more than 8 feet long, from nose to end of tail, and generally weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. Females can be 7 feet long and weigh between 65 and 90 pounds. The animals are tawny-colored, with black-tipped ears and tail. Unlike bobcats, their tails are long ‚ about 3 feet.
Mountain lion populations in California have grown. In the 1970s, the California Department of Fish and Game put the number at more than 2,000. Barrett said the population today may number 5,000.
Mountain lions and people are meeting more frequently. In their studies, Barrett and his students have shown that people are encroaching on lion habitat, prey populations are rising, more people are hiking and running in mountain lion country and there is a heightened public awareness of the presence of mountain lions.
The signs soon to be posted throughout the hills on campus will include the following tips: