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Mountain Lions: Big cats on the prowl

More and more Calaveras County residents are spotting a previously reclusive neighbor in their yards, and it´s causing some fright.

With more residential developments popping up, people are bound to see more mountain lions, says John Stark, one of two California Department of Fish and Game wardens charged with patrolling the county. “There´s a lot more eyes out there in the forest now,” Stark said.

Residents in the Rancho Calaveras subdivision outside Valley Springs have noticed big cats wandering through the neighborhoods. A flurry of calls that came in after the Jan. 8 mountain lion attacks involving two cyclists encouraged Elaine Alves, a Rancho Calaveras resident, to call Stark. “We´ve had multiple sightings down here,” Alves said.

Stark will appear at the Rancho Calaveras Property Owners Clubhouse at 6:30 p.m., Friday. “I´m not trying to scare anyone,” Stark said. He simply wants to inform residents about what they can do to avoid becoming a statistic.

“You don´t see a good mountain lion,” Stark said of the reclusive predators. But because so many people in the foothills feed animals outside, they are in effect setting a banquet table for the big cats.

“We take sightings very seriously,” he said, but most reports of cats roaming the countryside are simply the animals doing what they do. It´s when the animals become comfortable around humans that things can get dangerous.

“You don´t know what an animal is going to do,” Stark said. “It will do what it wants.” Considering the number of people visiting the great outdoors, the actual number of mountain lion sightings is fairly low.

However, Stark said he does fear for one particular group in the population, children. “I have grandchildren who visit me up here,” Stark said. “I never let them out of my sight.”

He said hikers should never venture into the forest alone, and should be prepared if they encounter a big cat. “I carry pepper spray with me when I walk my dog,” Stark said.

The Department of Fish and Game Web site, at dfg.ca.gov, includes tips on what to do if a mountain lion is encountered in the woods:

Do not approach a mountain lion and do not run from them. Fleeing may trigger the cat´s natural hunting response and it may begin to chase anyone trying to escape. If hiking with small children, pick them up so they don´t run away. Make yourself look bigger, either by slowly raising your arms, or lifting a jacket. Also, do not crouch or bend down, as the smaller stature might appear more like prey to the animal.

In a worst-case scenario, experts say that fighting back often deters a mountain lion if it attacks.

Stark said the vast majority of sightings of mountain lions aren´t really too much to worry about because the cats prefer to stay away from humans as much as humans want the cats to steer clear of them.

The most important thing, Stark stressed, is not to feed animals outdoors. Don´t feed deer or even cats and dogs outside because animals attracted to a pet´s food dish will represent an easy meal for a mountain lion.

If a mountain lion is spotted, report it, Stark said. If it´s an emergency, call 911. If tracks are spotted on your property, call Fish and Game at (916) 445-0045 or (916) 358-2900.

Stark has a recorder on a phone at his Valley Springs home where residents can also report sightings. That number is 772-1859.

Calaveras Enterprise story by Mike Taylor. For more Calaveras news, click: calaverasenterprise.com