Tracking the Predators


Trekking through Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Shalene George keeps her eyes trained on the beaten path before her, pointing out blurry treads of mountain bike tires, spotty traces of hiking boots and running sneakers, and endless patterns of dog paws.

Evidence of man and man’s best friend might be obvious to even the casual observer along these dusty trails. But this sleuthing biologist is also hunting for other signs of life, and it isn’t long before she spots a welcome set of footprints.

“That’s a coyote track,” George says with a big grin, explaining how the animal’s front and back paws land so close together, proof of their streamlined stride. “They’re built for movement. You can just tell by how their feet land.”


These tracks in the sand tell an important story to George, who admits to having become something of a footprint fanatic as she investigates how bikers, hikers, runners and other outdoor buffs are changing the habits of mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and other predators in Orange County’s 37,000-acre nature reserve.

A Southern California native, George is winding up the third and last year of a field study that will serve as the basis of her master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin.

George, 30, says she distinguished her research from other studies on the impact of human recreation on wildlife by focusing on carnivores in urban environments.

With its fragments of open space divided by highways and housing tracts, Orange County provides an ideal laboratory, she says.

George hopes her conclusions will help park managers in similar settings as they seek to strike a balance between meeting public recreation needs and limiting disruptions to native wildlife.

“Maybe animals have a greater ability to adapt than we think they do,” she says.

For now, George spends her days hopscotching from one nature reserve to the next, revisiting 20 baited track stations and 28 mounted cameras that she hopes will help show what happens to predators when people invade their space.


On a warm day in late autumn, George drives her pickup truck to a trail head in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and hikes two miles to a shady hill, where one of her cameras is posted knee-high, peeking out from a tangle of green shrubs. She bends down and unlocks a box that protects the camera from bad weather, curious critters and vandals.

The camera’s shutter is triggered by a remote sensor that detects heat and motion. The lens has a range of 30 feet, fanning out like a cone.

Over the years, similar cameras have taken scores of photographs that are being compiled in binders. Sequences show bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions sharing paths with humans, sometimes only minutes apart.

In many cases, animals pass by so fast that the lens only captures half of a foot, part of an ear or just an eye. George has become something of an expert at matching random body parts to their rightful owners.

On the way back to her truck, she stops at one of the baited track stations that she has set up along the trail. Scented lures splashed on large rocks draw certain species to this otherwise obscure dirt patch, where gypsum powder records their prints.

George links each of the stations to at least one camera for each of the wildlife corridors she is studying, hoping the tandem approach will help her develop more reliable theories about behavior patterns.


She came up with the idea for her thesis while helping out with a broader study of animal movements in Orange County’s wildlife reserves. George noticed that bobcats and other predators thought to be predominantly nocturnal animals were routinely being captured on film in the middle of the day, and she wanted to figure out why.

What she has found has helped form the basis of one of her theories: High levels of human activity are causing carnivores to retreat during the day and become more active after dark.

“Maybe they’re not nocturnal, but they are adapting their behavior because of the human presence,” George says.

Such changes in behavior can have a dramatic impact on prey species and, ultimately, on the balance of nature, she says. As rabbits and various rodents have freer rein and more time to forage during the day, their numbers could multiply. If that happens, those species could threaten the plant life they feast on, which in turn could lead to soil erosion, George says.

“That’s the kind of slippery slope you could go down, how this ecological effect can impact people,” she says.

But so far, George’s observations have not revealed consistent behavior patterns.

At Crystal Cove State Park, one of the natural areas most heavily used by people, she has found less diversity of all species and a disproportionately low level of coyotes, bobcats and mule deer.


At Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, on the other hand, she says, the same animals are “not giving an inch” even though it too is a popular destination for people.

“I love Whiting Ranch. You name it, I’m finding it,” she says. “It tells me that there is some sort of compromise. If people stick to the main trails, they can come in and run and bike, and animals can have their food and water and space. It’s an example of how everything can work together.”

George says she is struck by how little the public knows about the animals that live in the spaces they share.

All carnivores need privacy, in places they perceive as safe, to bear and raise their young, George says. She has found that mountain lions are the most sensitive to human disruption, while coyotes seem to be the most adaptable.

As hikers Scott Van Dyke and Tom Leetch pass her in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, they admit that they do not think about the impact they may be having on the wildlife around them, even though they know they do have an impact.

“I think that’s pretty much what everyone thinks,” George says.

She knows she is not blameless, either, rumbling down wooded lanes in her truck and using cameras with flashes that have sent bunnies flying.


“I definitely have a lot of pictures where the animals are scared out of their minds,” she says, adding that she plans to incorporate camera reactions into her study.

“Every time I drive through here, I have an impact,” she says. “But I hope I’m balancing it out with the work I’m doing out here.”