UC Berkeley press release


Signs to be posted at UC Berkeley alerting campus community and visitors to mountain lion habitats

by Gretchen Kell

BERKELEY -- About half of California is prime mountain lion territory, and the Berkeley/Oakland hills -- including the high and hilly slopes of UC Berkeley -- are no exception.

To inform students, faculty, staff and visitors of this fact, UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley property to phone campus police.

"The public will become our research assistants," said Dale Sanders, a senior planner at UC Berkeley's Physical and Environmental Planning Department who, along with Barrett, launched the educational effort. "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 UC Berkeley land, but few of them were reported to police, and no accurate record exists.

Barrett added that even when sightings are reported, they often are not of mountain lions after all. In a study Barrett supervised in Orange County following the 1986 mauling of a five-year-old girl, 90 percent of people who had reported seeing a lion actually had seen a housecat.

"Out of the corner of your eye at dusk," he said, "it's hard to tell how big the animal really is."

Some of the sightings Barrett is sure of include one made by his wife, Katharine, who is director of biology education at the Lawrence Hall of Science. She saw a lion in the 1980s drinking from a pond outside the hall. Some of his students also have seen lions while doing research in nearby Tilden Park and Wildcat Canyon.

Last summer, Barrett interviewed two men -- one a goatherd, the other a plumber who hunts for sport -- who convinced him they'd each seen a mountain lion in July. One had spotted a lion on a hillside north of the pool in the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area. The other sighting was near the Space Science Laboratory off Grizzly Peak.

Last month, a counselor at a day camp in Strawberry Canyon reported a sighting to UC Berkeley police.

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."

"It's almost like searching for Big Foot," said Sanders.

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.

Barrett said this awareness rose after several rare attacks on humans. In 1994, two Californians were killed by mountain lions -- one while jogging in the foothills of El Dorado County near Auburn and the other on hike at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park near San Diego.

The signs soon to be posted throughout the hills on campus will include the following tips:


Approach, run, crouch down or turn your back on a mountain lion


Back away slowly, remain calm

Keep children close by and pets on a leash

Raise your arms and make yourself appear larger

If the lion approaches you, yell, throw stones, branches or whatever you can grab without crouching


If the lion attacks, fight back and stay on your feet.

Sanders said 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."


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