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Mother Lion, Kittens Win Game of Stealth

Times Staff Writer

If ever there was a ticklish situation, this was it.

There he was Saturday, wildlife biologist Paul Beier, about to go traipsing into thick brush in Caspers Wilderness Park, where he knew for dead certain that a mother mountain lion was hiding, possibly with her two strapping kittens.

And Beier was going in alone, unarmed and with full knowledge that the mountain lions were in all probability gathered around a fresh deer kill--unanxious for company. Beier shrugged and joked, “Well, at least I’ll die with my boots on.”

It happened, however, that the mother lion and her two year-old kittens vanished, despite the best efforts of Beier and other members of a state and local trapping team.

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The team, sponsored by the Orange County Cooperative Mountain Lion Study, had set out to hunt down and tranquilize the two kittens and then put radio transmitters attached to collars on them so their movements could be monitored.

The kittens’ mother and three other adult female mountain lions in the vicinity of Caspers Park in southern Orange County have already had collars attached to them as part of a 2-year study begun by the county last year after cougars attacked two children during 1986. The last lion was caught and “collared” about a year ago.

The trappers planned to go back out at first light today and continue going until they catch the not-so-little siblings.

Now three-quarters grown and weighing between 50 and 85 pounds, the lions need to be equipped with transmitters before they leave their mother and wander alone out into the wilderness, said Duggin Wroe, a research aide to Beier, who is leading the study.

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“Once they leave their mom, good luck finding them,” said Wroe, who has also researched grizzly bear habits in the Montana high country.

Mountain lion kittens leave their mother at about 14 months, Wroe said. Since the two kittens in Caspers Park are almost that age, they could leave anytime, he said.

For now, the kittens apparently are still with their mother, because their tracks have appeared together at various places around the park in recent days. Confident that the three are still roaming as a family, Orange County study teams officials last week called trapper Dave Fjelline of the California Department of Fish and Game to help.

Fjelline, who lives in Placer County in Northern California, and his partner, Cliff Wylie, drove to Orange County in a battered pickup truck loaded with braying hounds. The plan was for the pack of six dogs to be set free to chase a lion up a tree once the trappers could get a good handle on the lions’ whereabouts.

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But the hounds never got a chance Saturday because the trappers couldn’t get a definite fix on the kittens. Although they knew exactly where the mother was because of radio transmissions from her collar, the trappers did not want to start a dog chase unless they were sure the kittens were with her.

Setting out in a pre-dawn chill of 21 degrees, the trappers roamed in trucks throughout the chaparral of the 7,600-acre park and adjoining Rancho Mission Viejo. They scanned the dirt roads for fresh cougar tracks and held up a portable radio receiver to pinpoint transmissions from the lions’ collars.

Although they found no fresh tracks, trappers were tantalized by the days-old imprint of lion kittens’ paws on a road through the Rancho Mission Viejo property. The prints, on the side of the road, had been missed by the chains the trappers drag at night so they will know if tracks are new.

Using the hand-held receivers, however, the trappers were able to pinpoint the location of the mother lion, known as No. 305 on the radio dial, as well as two of the three other collared lions.

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Judging from the signals, Beier said the three adults were within 5 miles of each other, grouped around Caspers Park. In all, there are an estimated two dozen mountain lions in the Orange County backcountry.

Since they were only interested in No. 305 and her kittens, the trappers ignored the other signals and concentrated on her. According to her radio signal, the lion was lurking nearby in a brush-choked ravine on Rancho Mission Viejo property, just a few hundred yards from the Caspers Park western boundary.

But it was unclear whether she was alone. Fjelline speculated that she had killed a deer the previous night, and was in the ravine alone tending the carcass until she could fetch the kittens. If that was the case, Fjelline said, the kittens probably would be brought back to the kill that night.

To test that theory, Fjelline slowly drove to a road below the ravine to look for tracks. As he drove, Wylie sat on the hood, scanning the dirt for the four-toed prints. The dogs howled their exasperation from beneath a covering in the back of the truck.

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Beier and Wroe, meanwhile, left their truck and began hiking down to the ravine to see whether the mother was indeed harboring a fresh kill. Using map and compass, they struggled through sage and cactus until they reached a ridge directly overlooking a bush from which radio signals were sounding so loudly an antenna was not needed to receive them.

The two men separated to try and flush out the big cat. Before venturing down, Beier conceded that “whenever I’m poking around a kill, I’m always nervous. She could nail me, no problem.”

But he added that there have been no reports of cougar attacks on wildlife researchers--at least not yet.

It didn’t help Beier’s frame of mind that Wroe, who has come face to face with equally dangerous grizzly bears, did not answer his call on a two-way radio.

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“Yo, Duggin?” Beier inquired, hearing nothing but static in response. “I assume he’s all right,” he said to himself.

Wroe was, and soon he could be seen closing in on the lion’s hiding place from the right. As Beier worked his way in from the left, radio signals showed the cougar was stalking quickly away from the men, over the next hill.

Beier and Wroe found no sign of her, the kittens nor a kill.

Afterward, when the weary trappers met back in Caspers Park, Fjelline expressed no surprise at the cougar’s wiliness in eluding her pursuers through the dense brush without making a sound.

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“They’re just like a vapor,” he said. “They are the epitome of stealth.”


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