A photograph taken with a remotely operated camera in the hills seven miles east of downtown San Jose is serving as a reminder that there's more to Silicon Valley than smartphones and search engines: Mountain lions are part of the landscape too.
The color image of an adult male lion, sauntering along a trail, was taken at 8 a.m. on the chilly morning of Jan. 11 at the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, a 3,200-acre former cattle ranch on the slopes of Mount Hamilton donated to the University of California for scientific research in 2007.
"My reaction was wow! This is a big animal," said Erik Viik, steward at the reserve.
Viik discovered the photo last Friday during his weekly check of the camera, which uses motion sensors and heat sensors to snap digital images of wildlife when no people are around.
Unlike many other mountain lion photos, this one, taken with a Bushnell Trophy Cam Trail camera mounted on a post about three feet off the ground, did not come about after a chase by humans, he said.
"Most of the other photos of big cats are taken because they are either radio-collared, or because they have been tracked with dogs into a tree and tranquilized," Viik said. "To capture one in the wild like this was special."
California's mountain lion population has increased since 1990, when voters passed Proposition 117, banning the sport hunting of mountain lions statewide. Lions sometimes attack livestock and pets in rural areas. Attacks on people are rare, however. Over the past 112 years, only six people have been killed by mountain lions in California. More people have died from bee stings and dog bites.
"They basically peacefully coexist. Just like with domestic animals, occasionally there will be one that gets out of line, but 99.99 percent of the time you are not even aware they are there," said biologist Mike Hamilton, director of the reserve.
UC professors, graduate students and other researchers who work on the property, which sits on the northern boundary of Joseph D. Grant County Park, study a wide variety of topics, including the health of oak forests, the impact of invasive species, and radio and GPs-tracking of wildlife. The property's oak woodlands, meadows, streams and other habitats are home to more than 130 species of birds, 41 species of mammals and 21 species of reptiles and amphibians.
And at least two or three mountain lions, Hamilton believes.
Remote cameras on the property regularly take photos of deer, bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife. Only once before have they documented a lion, and that was a fuzzy black-and-white image.
The recent photo has been e-mailed around by UC faculty members, and posted on the UC reserve system's Facebook page, creating a buzz.
Chris Wilmers, a mountain lion expert at UC Santa Cruz, has radio-collared 33 lions since 2008 between Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Mount Madonna County Park near Gilroy. He estimated that 50 to 100 lions live in the Santa Cruz Mountains but said he doesn't know how many are living around Mount Hamilton or in the Diablo Range.
The lion photographed weighs more than 100 pounds. Wilmers said it is a male from 4- to 10-years-old, and it looks healthy. That it wandered into photo range on the outskirts of America's 10th largest city was bound to happen sooner or later, he said.
"It's not a surprise to me. There is a lot of great open space there," Wilmers said. "If anything, it is a testament to the fact that people have been able to protect large open spaces that animals like mountain lions need to be healthy."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN