A rash of mountain lion sightings has been reported near both UC Santa Barbara Main Campus and West Campus in recent weeks, raising as many questions as it does concerns.
The first reported sighting was on Sept. 17 around 6:30 p.m., near Campus Point. This was quickly followed by a second sighting near Devereux Lagoon on West Campus the next day; the following morning, Sept. 19, a sighting near West Campus was reported again.
There were then no sightings for almost three weeks until Oct. 7, when UCSB students Dulce Simental and Monica Lopez spotted a large and “very built” animal fleeing on all fours while the two were watching the sunset below the Campus Point bluffs.
Molly Hardesty-Moore, a researcher associated with the McCauley Lab at UCSB who focuses on urban and carnivore ecology, sat down with the Nexus to discuss the likely origins of the mountain lion, as well as the implications of repeat sightings so close to civilization.
Hardesty-Moore pointed to two possible scenarios: the mountain lion may have come to campus by following the coast, approaching from the relatively undeveloped north, or it may have come to campus from the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains by crossing the 101 Freeway and crossing a number of human settlements.
“Honestly, I got out Google Maps as soon as I heard about this. I was like, ‘How the heck would this guy get here?’ We’re surrounded by the 101 and the 217. Even going along the coast there’s sporadic houses and ranches,” Hardesty-Moore said.
“If it went from Campus Point to Devereux, it wouldn’t go through Isla Vista without being sighted, so it seems like it went along the beach during low tide, if that’s possible. It’s also possible it came in along the coast originally.”
If the mountain lion was confined to small strips of coast and navigated these spaces using the beaches to avoid humans, it would be difficult for it to sustain itself, as its primary food source is deer, which can’t be found in the immediate coastal area, she noted.
“[Lions] do eat raccoons as a secondary food source, and we do have a decent amount of racoons,” Hardesty-Moore said.
She added, however, that she is unsure how easy it would be for a mountain lion to switch to a prey source it is not used to; as part of her research, she monitors the movement of racoons throughout campus and the greater urban environment with GPS collars and has not come across evidence to suggest that a mountain lion is hunting the racoons.
It is also unlikely that a mountain lion would willfully return to campus after hunting elsewhere unless it had to, she explained.
“If it has a good route to go up the coast through the beach, maybe it is going up and then feeling pressure to come back for whatever reason, but I would more expect that it’s stuck here. If it could leave in a good way, it would, and it wouldn’t come back,” Hardesty-Moore said.
One possibility is that conflict from another mountain lion is compelling this one to linger near the coast. Mountain lions are territorial predators who need a lot of land, so juvenile males may find themselves inadvertently encroaching on urban spaces to avoid conflict with other more established adults, she explained.
“It seems probable that the one sighted could be a young male, since they tend to be the ones that disperse. I don’t know why it would be returning [to campus areas] unless it were being driven away by an aggressive older male, since they’re really territorial,” Hardesty-Moore said.
“Mountain lions are wide-ranging species, and when they get old enough, they disperse. It’s sort of a normal thing for them to start seeking new spaces, although it’s not as normal to get into human spaces.”
A human stressor may also be a culprit. Mountain lions throughout California are victims of intense habitat fragmentation and can become cut off from one another. This is especially true in coastal Southern California, where the urban landscape is sprawling and extensive, save for pockets of land along the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, according to Hardesty-Moore.
“[Mountain lions are] really bad at crossing roads and being around people because we just tend to get rid of them. Southern California is just full of people,” she said.
However, UCSB’s campus and Devereux Lagoon are a far cry from untouched, and the presence of comparatively high-quality open space in the hills across the 101 Freeway make it difficult to entertain the notion that a mountain lion would flee to the coast in search of better habitat, Hardesty-Moore explained.
According to Hardesty-Moore, mountain lions are only known to attack humans in extreme circumstances, but students should still exercise caution.
“It’s a big predator. That is something to be mindful of. If it’s scared or hungry or lost, that could make the situation worse, but it’s almost always really extreme circumstances — [if] the mountain lion is starving, for example. Usually they don’t want anything to do with people,” Hardesty-Moore said.
“If you’ve ever been out hiking in the hills, odds are that a mountain has seen you do that. But it doesn’t want you, it doesn’t need you. It doesn’t want human prey. You’re just trouble for them.”
Hardesty-Moore and Peter Alagona, an associate professor in history and environmental studies, plan to meet with the UC Police Department, state and federal government officials and fellow scholars in early November to discuss “mountain lions, public safety, and wildlife coexistence on the UCSB campus,” Alagona said.
To Hardesty-Moore, the recent sightings give the community a chance to better understand the natural world which surrounds campus and how it can intersect with civilization — sometimes in messy ways.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to think ‘Oh my gosh, these creatures are actually really close to us.’ They live right around us and sometimes they come around here, and we need to think about how to coexist with them and figure out problems like this when they happen.”