A 70-pound mountain lion has been captured, and the tracks of two others have been found in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano, where two of the big cats have mauled young children in the last seven months, state wildlife officials said Monday.
An adult female lion was captured and examined Friday but was released in the park within an hour after state Department of Fish and Game officials determined that there was no evidence linking it to attacks on humans, said Terry M. Mansfield, wildlife management supervisor for the state agency.
Before the female lion was released, however, she was fitted with a radio-transmitter collar to help biologists study movements of the wide-ranging animals in the park and in an adjacent wildlife sanctuary and the Cleveland National Forest, officials said.
"Should we get the lion in hand that was involved (in the attack), we would take that lion out of the wild," Mansfield said Monday.
Mansfield said tracks of two more cats were found Monday, but the animals themselves were not seen. Measurements of their tracks were recorded, however.
Friday's capture of a lion was the fourth at the 7,500-acre park since 5-year-old Laura Michele Small was attacked on March 23. One day later, trackers captured and later killed an adolescent male lion, saying they believed that it was the same animal that attacked the El Toro girl but could not determine that with certainty.
On July 5, trackers captured a female cat and her cub. Wildlife experts at the time ruled out the possibility that the mother lion had been involved in the attack on Laura Michele. The lion and cub now are living at the Salt Lake City Zoo, Mansfield said.
Six-year-old Justin Mellon was attacked shortly before noon on Oct. 19, when he ran ahead of his parents on a park trail not far from where Laura Small was seized. Hunters and two teams of specially trained tracking dogs searched unsuccessfully for four days to find the cougar responsible for the attack on the Huntington Beach first-grader.
The park has remained closed since the Mellon attack, and trails normally used by park visitors have been raked to help detect the presence of lion tracks. When paw prints from a cougar were seen Friday, a team of dogs led by two hunters, a game warden and a wildlife biologist located the lion in a tree and immobilized it with a tranquilizer dart, Mansfield said.
The captured lion was a healthy, mature female, he said. Its tracks did not match those left by the cougar involved in the most recent attack on Justin Mellon. The female was not nursing young, did not appear to be pregnant and seemed to be alone, he said.
"She behaved very much like a normal mountain lion," Mansfield said. "We had no reason to believe she was involved in the (Mellon) attack."
The radio transmitter in the collar operates on batteries with a two- to three-year life. It will enable wildlife experts to locate that animal if needed, Mansfield said.
"Our primary objective is to go down there and obtain as much factual information as practical on mountain lions in and around Caspers," he said.
The prospects appear unlikely that trackers ever will identify the lion involved in the Mellon attack, Mansfield said. That lion eluded efforts at detection, despite the presence of trained dogs and trackers at Caspers within hours of the attack.
Mansfield added that there are no plans for a "preventive hunt" or a general reduction in mountain lion population in the area. Such hunts have been authorized in the past when lions have posed an unusual, continuing danger to livestock.
State Fish and Game Commission President Brian J. Kahn had said such a hunt should be considered if the lion in last month's attack was not quickly identified.
Kahn said Monday that the state commission will discuss the lion population at a scheduled meeting Thursday in Redding and the possibility of authorizing such a preventive hunt.
But Mansfield said mountain lions have ranges of 40 to 150 square miles, and Caspers Park could be "a tiny portion of the range of perhaps several lions."
Times staff writer Gordon Grant contributed to this story.