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Orange County

Workers Spot 2nd Cougar in San Juan

The sighting keeps a path and three parks closed. Wildlife officials say the mountain lions will have to be destroyed.

September 30, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

A popular trail and three parks in San Juan Capistrano that were closed over the weekend following a mountain lion sighting remained closed Monday after a second mountain lion was spotted near an equestrian center.

By questioning witnesses and examining paw prints, wildlife officials were able to determine that the cougar, which was seen Sunday night, was different from the animal that stalked a man and his young son Thursday, prompting closure of the parks and trail.

Authorities spent Monday afternoon searching for the animals, setting traps and distributing leaflets to residents warning them of possible dangers.

Wildlife officials said they have no choice but to destroy the mountain lions because the unusual behavior -- wandering close to humans -- shows the animals are unpredictable.

"This is not normal," said Capt. Jerry Spansail, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. "There's something really wrong here .... There's small kids walking around in this area. These animals won't be relocated."

Paul Beier, a Northern Arizona University professor who studied mountain lions in the Santa Ana Mountains for five years, said he is not surprised to hear that the animals have wandered down from the hills.

"They probably come closer to the fringes of San Juan more than anyone knows," said Beier, whose study was funded by the state and the county. "But they usually are not seen. What's unusual is they allowed themselves to be seen and that they didn't move after being seen."

Beier said it is strange for two mountain lions to be spotted in the same area.

"One could be the mother and the other could be the cub," he said. "They could both be sick, or it could just be a strange coincidence."

Fish and Game personnel said they didn't know the sex of either animal. Soon after Thursday evening's sighting, Fish and Game personnel shot the mountain lion after determining it was a threat to public safety. But the animal fled.

Wildlife officials said they assumed the scare had ended after there had been no more sightings over the weekend. But Sunday night about 8:15 p.m., employees from the Ortega Equestrian Center spotted the mountain lion near the horse trail in back of the horse stalls near San Juan Creek. Paw prints could be clearly seen up and down the trail.

"The animal didn't display aggressive behavior, but it didn't run away like they normally would," Spansail said. "But nothing about these incidents are typical. Usually these animals are up in the hills living off their prey, deer."

Phil Walker, a Dana Point resident, had planned to ride his bike through the trail Monday afternoon on his way home from work in Rancho Santa Margarita. But Walker took the long way home after seeing yellow tape blocking the entrance.

"I don't look at this as an inconvenience," Walker said. "It's the same as airport security. I don't like it, but it's necessary."

If a biker confronts a mountain lion, described as an adult weighing about 100 pounds, Spansail said the rider should "get off the bike, pick up the bike and be as big and bad as you can possibly be."

A city spokesman said Cook Cordova, Cook La Novia and San Juan Creek parks would remain closed until further notice as would all easterly hiking and biking trails. Ambuehl Elementary and St. Margaret's Episcopal School were put on alert by Fish and Game personnel.

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