LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Mountain lions are slowly making a comeback in the lower 48 states, after centuries of hunting and eradication efforts. But as their numbers grow, so do conflicts with people. Lauren Sommer, from member station KQED, went out with a team of scientists tracking mountain lions in Northern California.
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LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Finding a mountain lion in the Santa Cruz Mountains is even harder than it sounds. After six hours of searching just south of the Bay Area, a pair of hound dogs has finally caught the scent.
PAUL HOUGHTALING: The dogs cornered him in that tree but he looks pretty relaxed up there.
SOMMER: Paul Houghtaling is a field biologist with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, run out of the University of California, Santa Cruz. His objective is perched in a tree right above us.
HOUGHTALING: He's looking at us. He's interested in us. But just a little while ago he had his head down on the branch. He's just going to wait us out.
SOMMER: Houghtaling is used to being in this position. He puts tracking collars on mountain lions, part of a five-year project to study their movements and how they live around people. He loads his rifle with a dart to sedate the lion.
HOUGHTALING: Five, four, three...
SOMMER: He aims.
HOUGHTALING: ...two, one.
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SOMMER: The dart hits square in the thigh.
HOUGHTALING: Ho. Ya...
SOMMER: The mountain lion leaps down and runs by us at full speed, closer than expected.
HOUGHTALING: That came right next to you, huh?
SOMMER: A little close there.
We catch up with her - it's a she it turns out - as she's failing asleep under some bushes.
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HOUGHTALING: Her head is 39 centimeters...
SOMMER: Houghtaling takes her vitals and gives her the name 38F - as in the 38th mountain lion in the study, F for female. He fits her with a tracking collar that records her location every four hours.
HOUGHTALING: They will get in and amongst houses, particularly after darkness falls. They cross roads.
SOMMER: That's typically when they get into trouble. Mountain lions are often shot if they kill livestock. Several lions in the study have been hit by cars crossing highways.
HOUGHTALING: Human development and roads, they do affect mountain lions by splitting up the open space areas that were once intact.
SOMMER: But what the project has learned could help protect this population and others around the country. Like, when the lions cross a local highway, they all tend to cross in the same places, so transportation officials are designing wildlife corridors there to get them across.
Houghtaling says they've found mountain lions need isolated areas to breed and raise their young, something that's informing habitat conservation.
HOUGHTALING: Yeah. It's working great.
SOMMER: Houghtaling does a final check on the tracking collar and steps back, so the mountain lion can slowly wake up and return to her life in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.
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