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Mountain lion evades search efforts
East Turlock schools increase safety patrols
mountain lion pic
In this undated file photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a mountain lion. Public safety officials have been looking for a mountain lion spotted in east Turlock Sunday night. - photo by AP Photo/California Department of Fish and Game

A mountain lion spotted in an east Turlock neighborhood Sunday night continues to roam free in parts unknown as officials suspended their search Monday.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife does have a biologist with tranquilizer darts on standby about 20 minutes away should the mountain lion be spotted again.

“She’ll be ready should it be spotted again,” said Fish and Wildlife Lt. Patrick Foy.

The mountain lion was first spotted around 6 p.m. Sunday by residents in the area of Anning Drive and N. Johnson Road. Several Turlock Police officers responded to the area and confirmed seeing the mountain lion, which was estimated at about 90 pounds.

Police set up a perimeter around the area, including Hawkeye and Berkeley avenues and Johnson Road. Police dispatchers issued “stay in place” calls to the neighborhood and officers used loud speakers to warn residents of the cat’s presence and stay indoors. The police also asked individuals at Crane Park to leave the area, said Turlock Police Sgt. Stephen Webb.

The police department also contacted officials from Fish and Wildlife, who joined the search with the use of tracking dogs.

There were several more sightings of the mountain lion reported on Sunday, including a report that it was spotted on the Julien Elementary campus, but nothing was found. The last confirmed report came in around 11:30 p.m. Sunday when the animal was seen by Fish and Wildlife officials in the area of Palmer and Simon drives.

“We had gone back to where we saw the tracks and were quite literally looking at them when we heard a noise and then the mountain lion came out of a tree and bounded over some fences. We haven’t seen it since,” Foy said.

The police department did have an unconfirmed sighting of the mountain lion at 1:20 a.m. by a resident in the area of Escondido and Colorado Avenue, but the resident was unsure if it was a big cat or a large dog, Webb said.

The police perimeter remained in place for almost five hours. Fish and Wildlife officials remained in the area overnight.

Turlock Unified School District was kept apprised by the police department on the search for the mountain lion. The district issued three alerts to parents on Monday recommending they transport their children to and from school over the next several days, as well as have them to walk in groups to and from the Julien, Dutcher and Turlock High campuses.

TUSD and TPD were both taking extra steps to ensure the safety of the students.

“In addition to TPD patrolling the neighborhood areas around the three campuses, we have utilized our school resource officers to provide additional visibility and securing of school perimeters,” said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Dana Trevethan.

Julien Principal Jeff Persons said the school had increased the number of safety supervisors on campus and all students were kept in groups with a supervisor.

Several parents commented on social media that they would be keeping their children home for the day in light of the situation. Trevethan said there was a slight increase in absences on Monday.

If the mountain lion is located, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has no immediate plans to kill it.

“It hasn’t shown any kind of threatening behavior, so we would prefer to relocate it,” Foy said.

The effort to tranquilize a mountain lion is more complicated than people generally assume, Foy said.

“If a mountain lion is spotted 70 feet up in a tree and we tranquilize it, it could fall 70 feet to its death, or it could fall asleep up in the tree, and I’m not going to send a game warden up the tree to get it,” Foy said.

Mountain lion sightings are not that uncommon Foy said. He said the department receives multiple reports of possible sightings every day. Earlier this summer a 70 pound mountain lion was spotted in downtown Sacramento and another was seen in a residential neighborhood in Mountain View.

“In some cases the mountain lion is spotted one day and then never seen again,” Foy said.

Sunday’s sighting was the first confirmed appearance after several reports in the Turlock, Hilmar and Modesto areas. It is suspected a mountain lion was responsible for an attack on a horse in Hilmar. The suspected mountain lion attack was discovered on Aug. 23 when a 600-pound yearling was found dead in a pasture at a ranch off of Golf Link Road in Hilmar. The horse sustained a fatal bite to the neck that punctured all the way to the spinal cord, said Jessica Wright, the caretaker at the ranch.

“It’s unusual for a mountain lion to attack a horse, but in this case that appears to be what happened,” Foy said.

Foy said the likelihood that the suspected mountain lion attack in Hilmar was done by the same mountain lion spotted in Turlock is very low, even though the big cats can have territorial range of 200 miles.

At least one mountain lion has made a foray into Turlock before. In 2012 a female mountain lion, weighing an estimated 80 to 100 pounds, made her way to the 5000 block of E. Linwood Avenue, where she broke through the door of a residence and then clawed her way up a large eucalyptus tree on the property.

The mountain lion was shot and killed by Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputies when it attempted to climb down from the tree. The mountain lion had been deemed a public safety threat.

In 1990 California voters passed Proposition 117 that declared mountain lions a “specially protected species” and made it illegal to hunt them. Mountain lions can only be killed if a special permit is issued to kill a particular mountain lion that is killing livestock or pets; if it is deemed a threat to public safety; or if it is to protect listed bighorn sheep, which are endangered.

The California Department of Fish and Game has a crude estimate that about 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions are roaming the state. Mountain lions typically are found in areas of higher ground, where deer — their main food source — live in abundant numbers.

It’s unknown if the ongoing drought or the wildfires are leading mountain lions into the Valley.

“There is so little research on mountain lions that we just cannot connect it with any degree of certainty,” Foy said.

Mountain lions are quiet, solitary and elusive, and typically avoid people.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare. However, conflicts are increasing as California’s human population expands into mountain lion habitat. The Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends individuals:

·      -  Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.

·       - Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active—dawn, dusk, and at night.

·       -  Keep a close watch on small children.

·       - Do not approach a mountain lion.

·      -  If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.

·       - If attacked, fight back.

·       - If a mountain lion attacks a person, 
immediately call 911.

Foy also suggested children have a whistle attached to their backpack to use in case of an emergency.