Woodward Park mountain lion sighting could be case of mistaken identity

The odds are that the report of a mountain lion at Woodward Park was a case of mistaken identity.

About 70% of the time when a mountain lion is reported, it turns out to be a large dog, said one expert who regularly talks with the state Department of Fish and Game about the issue.

"It doesn't mean that someone did not see a mountain lion in the Woodward Park area," said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, based in Sacramento. "But it surprises me to hear about the report. Mountain lions don't regularly come down into the Central Valley."

The unconfirmed sighting happened this week at the northeastern boundary of the park, near the Lewis S. Eaton Overlook and McMichael Loop. Park officials have posted signs at park entrances warning visitors.

People in the area should pay close attention to their surroundings, but there is no need to fear, Dunbar said. Humans are not a food source for a mountain lion, a lone predator that prefers deer.

Still, people should not hike alone. If confronted by a mountain lion, raise your arms to appear larger and more threatening.

Never leave a child alone in an area where a mountain lion has been reported. And if attacked, fight back, and the big cat will most likely flee.

Since 1890, there has been only one attack reported in Central California. It was a nonfatal incident five years ago involving a 28-year-old woman in Sequoia National Forest, according to the state Department of Fish and Game Web site.

The last fatal attack occurred in 2004 in Southern California, according to state records online. Fish and Game officials were not available Wednesday to comment.

Mountain lions are a protected species, so it is illegal to hunt them. But state wildlife officials allow the killing of a mountain lion that is considered a threat to public safety.

Less than 5% of confirmed sightings involve animals that are deemed dangerous and must be killed, according to state records online. In Fresno County, there have been 15 mountain lions killed under such circumstances since 1972.

If a mountain lion did travel into the Woodward Park area, it was probably staking out new territory, Dunbar said. He said it might have followed a herd of deer from the higher elevations of the Sierra down the San Joaquin River drainage to Woodward Park.

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or 441-6316.