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Welcome to the Neighborhood
As suburban sprawl eats into their habitat and mountain bikers race through their hunting grounds, mountain lions are becoming more visible—and more lethal. By Carl Hoffman

Photo: DON'T GET CUTE: I'm a North American mountain lion. I can bring down a 600-pound bull elk. How much do you weigh?
DON'T GET CUTE: I'm a North American mountain lion. I can bring down a 600-pound bull elk. How much do you weigh?

Nils Magnuson set out at dusk on the Cactus Hill Trail, part of a 6.8-mile (10.9-kilometer) loop of fire road and singletrack that snakes through Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. A stay-at-home dad, Magnuson was coming off a hectic day corralling his three young children and was looking forward to his regular ride as a workout, but also to clear his mind. January 8, 2004, was a typically gorgeous southern California day, and the winter sun began filling the sky with dramatic sunset color as he navigated his mountain bike through sagebrush and prickly pear cactus. Pedaling at an aggressive clip, Magnuson moved along nearly as swiftly, if not quite as gracefully, as the deer he glimpsed bounding through the chaparral.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park lies smack in the heart of Orange County. The park is a favorite of hundreds of deep-suburban mountain bikers who are lured by its easy access. If you can endure the mind-numbing traffic on I-5, you can pull off at the Bake Parkway exit, stash your car in front of the shiny Wal-Mart at the Foothill Ranch Town Center and, five minutes later, zip into the park's wild interior. Magnuson likes Whiting Ranch so much he makes the 30-mile (48-kilometer) drive from Long Beach almost daily.

Just before 5 p.m. on January 8, Magnuson started across a section of the trail that rolls over the top of a crest, with shallow canyons on either side. Around one curve, he came upon a Cannondale F3000 leaning on a bush. That's odd, he thought. Who would abandon such an expensive rig?

Magnuson stopped, dismounted, and took a look around. Maybe the owner had stepped away to relieve himself? Or maybe he'd hit something and been thrown over the handlebars? He peered down the ravine. "Hey!" he yelled. "Anyone down there?"

The owner was nowhere to be found. Maybe something was wrong with the bike? He checked the tire pressure: full. And the chain: It was off the front sprocket, but otherwise the bike was ready to ride. What Magnuson couldn't have guessed was that the Cannondale had been lying there for nearly four hours. Its owner, Mark Reynolds, a competitive mountain biker, had reached this point on the run at approximately 1:25 p.m. Reynolds loved the Cactus Hill Trail as much as Magnuson but preferred to come at midday when he'd have the trail almost to himself. As Magnuson stood examining Reynolds's bike, he heard cyclists approaching. In no time, two women came zinging around a bend.

"I found a bike, and I don't know where the rider is!" he shouted. The women shrugged and were gone. Seconds later, Magnuson heard something he'd never heard before: "not a full scream, really, but a sound like someone's legs were being ripped off."

Long before Wal-Mart stores and mountain bikes, areas like Whiting Ranch were better known for hard-luck ranching and hardscrabble agriculture than for recreation. And to the region's original ranchers and hunters, the North American mountain lion—also known as the cougar, panther, puma, or catamount—was the worst kind of vermin, a stealthy killer that was believed to roam wide swaths of territory looking to pick off stray livestock. Weighing up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and reaching as long as eight feet (2.4 meters) from tip to tail, mountain lions are so quiet and so secretive they might be phantoms. Capable of leaping 40 feet (12 meters) in a single bound and 15 feet (4.6 meters) straight up, a mature 140-pound (636-kilogram) male can bring down a bull elk weighing 600 pounds (272-kilograms) or drag an 800-pound (363-kilogram) horse 100 yards (91.4 meters). Akin to giant house cats, mountain lions purr and hiss and spit, and, rather than roar, they growl, whistle, and screech. They are eating machines, and their favorite take-out in the western U.S. is the same deer and elk sought by big-game hunters. Ideally, an adult mountain lion needs to eat the equivalent of a deer every week; a mother with two cubs could use three. Until fairly recently, the lion was hunted with extreme prejudice. Between 1907 and 1978, hunters killed more than 66,000 lions in North America, 12,500 in California alone.

By the time Maurice Hornocker started studying mountain lions in the 1960s, the animals had all but disappeared east of the Mississippi outside a small pocket in the Florida Everglades and seemed headed for extinction in the rest of the country, too. Starting as a graduate student in 1963, Hornocker spent a decade following big cats across the wilds of Idaho, mostly through the snow. In an article he wrote years later for National Geographic, he recalled "living in tents in winter, tracking with dogs in often intense cold, then treeing, tranquilizing, and recapturing" the same cats over and over to collect data on their behavior patterns. Hornocker would go on to achieve a series of notable successes, most famously assembling a joint U.S.-Soviet team dedicated to saving the Siberian tiger, but it is his painstaking work with mountain lions that has had the most lasting impact on the environment. These days, the silver-haired eminence of mountain lion biology spends his days in southern Idaho, working for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Hornocker's mountain lion findings countered two key myths that had driven the bountied hunting of the animal. He discovered that instead of roaming endlessly in search of prey, each lion was highly territorial and tended to maintain a strict area for feeding. Hornocker also found that rather than being a threat to big game such as deer and elk, as had been supposed, lions generally attacked animals that were sick, old, or too young to reproduce. Where lion populations were stable, in fact, deer and elk herds thrived. Once the lions' vital role in the ecosystem was established, most states enacted legislation regulating the killing of mountain lions. Following intense lobbying by a coalition of environmental groups, Californians made mountain lions a protected species in 1990. Today, among conservationists fighting to protect one of America's largest carnivores, California is the shining success story: It's the only other state besides Florida where the recreational hunting of mountain lions is completely banned.

The ban's effect has been extraordinary. Believed to number just 5,000 throughout North America by the time Hornocker started studying them, biologists guess there may be 50,000 today, 5,000 or more in the most populous state in the union. "There are probably more lions in North America now than when Columbus hit our shores," says Hornocker. "They're in Nebraska and Kansas and pretty soon they'll be knocking on the door of the Mississippi."

The biggest factor in the lion's remarkable comeback, however, has been the parallel population explosion of its meal-ticket: deer, an animal that thrives in semi-suburbanized landscapes like those surrounding Whiting Ranch, eastern San Diego County's Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Colorado's Front Range, and Arizona's Sabino Canyon. In each of these locales, the human population has mushroomed in recent decades (the population in Orange County jumped from a little over 200,000 in 1950 to almost 3 million in 2003), and a highly marketable version of the pastoral life has flourished: houses with big lawns and gardens bordered by lots of trees, providing a perfect bounty and cover for Bambi.

"People like having deer around," says Walter Boyce, director of the University of California, Davis, Wildlife Health Center, "and deer can safely move across private property in close proximity to people without risk to their lives, or ours." Stalking deer, lions have come creeping around backyards and have begun to lie in wait right where people like to hike, ride, even tend their gardens. One big cat was shot and killed recently after it was discovered sleeping on the bough of a tree in residential Palo Alto, in Northern California. At least one has wandered into Griffith Park—home to the HOLLYWOOD sign. And in late June, Shannon Parker, a 27-year-old hiker from Santa Monica, lost her right eye and suffered a deep gouge in her right thigh when an emaciated female lion attacked her 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Kernville, between Bakersfield and Sequoia National Park. The cat ran off only after one of Parker's three companions stabbed it with a knife.

With lion populations continuing to rise, and increasing numbers exploring their shrinking habitat, it doesn't take a genius like Hornocker to predict the future. "There are more people and more lions, and thus more opportunity for people and lions to come into contact," he says. More confrontations, he adds, "are inevitable." But what to do about this inevitability is another matter, and the more time you spend in lion country, the more you realize how tricky—and potentially tragic—it will be for large numbers of lions and people to share the same turf.

Hearing the agonizing, muffled screams, Magnuson jumped on his bike and pedaled down the trail through an S-curve. At the end of this curve, on the right side and raised a few feet over the trail, stands a bush six feet (1.8 meters) high. Anne Hjelle, 30, one of the two women who'd passed Magnuson, was the first to reach it, her friend Debi Nicholls a good 30 yards (27.4 meters) behind. As she pedaled by the bush, it exploded. Hjelle saw a flash of reddish-brown, and in a single leap of muscle, fur, teeth, and claws, a lion was on her back, locking her helmeted head and neck within its jaws.

When Nicholls caught up to her, Hjelle was on her back, her helmet in the lion's mouth, the lion dragging her into the brush. Nicholls dismounted and threw her bike at the lion. She grabbed Hjelle's leg—and held on. For an instant, the lion released Hjelle's head but then bit her face, and resumed the tug of war with Nicholls.

"I'm going to die," Hjelle said.

"You're not. I will never let go."

Will Hjelle survive? Pick up the October print edition to find out, and learn about the growing threat humans and mountain lions pose to one another.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, October 2004

What It Takes: The best dream adventures you can make happen—today
Welcome to the Neighborhood: Can mountain lions and mountain bikers get along?
Secrets of the Black Hills: Granite towers, sunken caves, and singletrack abound
Pelton's World: Five things travel guidebooks never tell you

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Related Web Sites

Mountain Lion Foundation
For more about mountain lions' habits and history, check out this conservation group's Web site.

Mountain Lion Attacks On People in the U.S. and Canada
To find out more about specific mountain lion attacks on people and how to protect yourself, this site provides background details for attacks through 2003.

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October 2004

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