Sculpture to raise funds to collar mountain lions

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Andrea Verdin
Staff Writer

Friday, March 20th, 2009.
Issue 12, Volume 9.

A life-size sculpture of a mountain lion has been donated to help study the big cats’ habits and habitats.

De Luz artist Austin Casson – who donated the sculpture – gained an insider’s view of the wildlife project that will benefit from his donation.

He has participated in local forays where biologists have placed tracking collars on mountain lions to study their movements in the wild.

Casson said he was thrilled to create and donate the sculpture. But he worries the grinding recession might gnaw away some of the funds he hopes to raise at a May 16 function for the cougar collaring project.

“It’s tough out there right now for nonprofits trying to raise money,” Casson said in a recent telephone interview. And the climate for art sales has chilled as the economy continues to cool, he acknowledged.

Finding a home for the lion sculpture will be the focus of a four-hour gala function May 16 at a La Cresta winery. The 2 p.m. event at the Plateau Vineyards, 20170 Sierra Soto Road, will center on a drawing planned for the piece.

Tickets for the event are $20 per person. Tickets for the sculpture drawing will cost $100 each.

Casson, 62, said he has raised more than $20,000 in recent years for Southern California wildlife research and education projects.

Some of his other works can be seen at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, the National Golf Hall of Fame and the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association Hall of Fame.

His art has been shown and sold worldwide and featured in several publications. Some of his golf-related pieces were placed at about 130 courses in the United States and 11 other countries. Some of his work can be seen at

Casson said he became enamored with the mountain lion cause when he participated in several captures as part of the collaring project.

Those forays, which he describes in a poetic tone in a recent essay, also gave him an up-close look at the animals’ size, shape and structure.

“Going on the [collaring] hunts was part of the research for me,” he said. “I wanted to see one live.”

A local drive to raise funds to help collar and track the elusive cats was launched in September at the 8,400-acre Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve west of Murrieta.

Even then, organizers worried that the recession’s tightening grip could challenge efforts to raise money locally for the project.

Mountain lions have periodically been spotted in and around the area’s urbanized core. Sightings and close encounters have been reported in Southwest Riverside County in recent years.

No fatal attacks have been reported here in at least several decades, but two have occurred in remote Orange County settings.

The effort to track local mountain lions is part of a larger study being done by the Wildlife Health Center, a unit of the University of California, Davis. Trapping efforts have been underway at the plateau for several years.

The study tracks the movements, health and habitats of the feline predator and the prey it consumes. It has tracked more than 40 mountain lions throughout portions of Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties.

Part of its research examines ways to limit contact between cougars and humans and their pets and livestock.

Tracking mountain lions is crucial, researchers say, because it reveals their movements in corridors that connect wilderness areas with nature reserves and fast-growing urban settings.

Much of the lion movement tracked in the study has occurred in corridors that link Mount Palomar, the Pechanga Indian Reservation, Camp Pendleton and the Cleveland National Forest.

Without such corridors, genetic problems can occur if mountain lions become isolated and cannot mate with those in or near their hunting territories.

Keeping tabs on mountain lion health, diet and survival risks is also important. A poaching incident showed that some lions are being hunted illegally and others have been killed by cars or other human hazards.

The project’s budget estimates shows that about $880,000 will be needed over the next three years. The 15 collars needed for the project cost $5,000 each, and the cameras, cages, capture drugs, transportation and veterinarian care add to the cost.

Initial fundraising efforts netted nearly $330,000 from The Nature Conservancy, the National Science Foundation, private donations and other sources, organizers said.

Prior to the drawing, Casson’s lion sculpture will be displayed at the reserve visitors’ center, which is at 39400 Clinton Keith Road across from the entrance to the La Cresta community.

Tickets for the May 16 function and the sculpture drawing are available at the visitors’ center or by calling (951) 677-0869 or (951) 677-6951.


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