Another cougar prowls hiking trails

Another cougar prowls hiking trails
This big fish is real. Robert Flaata of Palmdale caught the 43-pound, 1-ounce striped bass, a record catch for Castaic Lake.
It was no mere walk in the park for a couple of hikers who had a pulse-pounding faceoff with a mountain lion last week on the trail at Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in the Santa Ana Mountains.

A man and his daughter found themselves in a standoff in broad daylight last Tuesday with a small but aggressive cougar. The animal repeatedly advanced toward them, but they were able to drive it back by shouting at it.

With the memory of the lion attack on cyclists at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in January still vivid, the reaction from park officials was swift. The reserve was closed while officials tried to track down the 80- to 90-pound cat, which, though a juvenile, can still be a hazard to life and limb.

"He's a predator in training," said Mike McBride, assistant chief for the state Department of Fish and Game. "He's learning, but if you're part of the learning curve, you're in trouble."

The park was reopened Monday, although officials said they had been unable to find the cat and had suspended the search. Signs posted at trailheads warn hikers of the incident and, ranger Kevin Smith said, "the lion could still be out there and possibly dangerous."

Rethinking fire aftermath

Fires may be disastrous, but they don't necessarily require human care after fire crews have gone home. New research shows the natural disturbances are important to ecosystems and a leave-it-alone approach helps burned land recover.

After flames are extinguished, fallen timber and a tangle of branches, called snags, litter the forest floor. The debris provides shelter for plants and animals attempting to recolonize charred soil and get natural systems running again.

Some human recovery practices impede nature's work by removing those materials, according to an international team of researchers.

"Maintaining large areas where the natural disturbance regime operates unimpaired by human activities is an important component of any biological conservation strategy," said Fiona Schmiegelow of the University of Alberta, a coauthor of the paper.

Salvage logging, for example, removes plant matter that is key to the recovery process, the study says. Such logging practices have been employed in Oregon and around Lake Tahoe and are a feature of the Bush administration's forest-management plans. The practice attempts to recoup economic losses, but environmentalists often challenge salvage logging.

The new study concludes that salvage logging needs to be reexamined, large burn areas should be exempted and strict policies enforced when salvage operations are undertaken. The study appears in the Feb. 27 edition of the journal Science.

The brave new forest

One of the last refuges from the e-leash of tech tools — the wilderness — is about to go digital.

A consortium of European firms involved in a project called WebPark has created a system that turns mobile devices into personal guide services, giving hikers, bikers and park explorers a running commentary on what they're seeing, where they are and how far it is to the next trail or landmark. It cannot yet tell you how many blisters you have.

Using Web and GPS technology, the system will soon plug park users from the Netherlands to Switzerland into a data stream that will send text, photos and video about the places they're visiting.

A high-tech version of the self-guided museum tour, WebPark can identify plant species, detail creatures in the vicinity or download maps or safety details. The information is sent wirelessly from servers to mobile devices and can provide data online and offline when there is sketchy mobile network coverage.

The service is not available in the U.S. — yet.

The losers in the future forest? Nature guidebook sellers, wilderness trip leaders and a little thing called wonder.