SAN ANDREAS — Steve Stocking, a retired San Joaquin Delta College biology instructor, has spent much of his life outdoors in the Sierra and Mother Lode.
In all his years, he never laid eyes on the animal that sits atop the local food chain: a mountain lion.
But that doesn't mean the lions didn't see him.
"I bet you I've been very close," Stocking said.
At times, Stocking has seen lion footprints not more than a few minutes old. "You can see the tracks and tell how fresh they are."
The community was reminded of the sometimes-tense relations between lions and humans last month when a Calaveras County sheriff's deputy reported coming face to face with a lion in the middle of San Andreas.
After finding the lion in a cemetery about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 14, the deputy advised other officers on the scene to return to their vehicles. He started walking back to his vehicle only to discover the lion following him, ears pinned back, as though it might pounce.
The lion turned and left, but not before the deputy reached for his gun, according to the Sheriff's Department.
State game officials and scientists say lion attacks on humans are rare. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, there were 16 verified attacks by mountain lions on humans in California from 1890 to 2007. Six were fatal.
Yet the number of lion- human encounters is growing as human population increases where lions live. Experts on mountain lions say those who live in lion country, even in towns such as San Andreas, should take precautions.
"The main problem with any of these wildlife issues is animals habituating to humans," said Richard Coss, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and an expert in prey-predator relationships. "That is where risk can increase."
In late July, a 100-pound mountain lion broke into a home in rural Turlock, then climbed a backyard tree. It was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy.
Normally, lions won't stay around people long enough to get used to them. But extremely dry conditions this year have prompted deer to come closer to human dwellings, where they can munch on irrigated gardens.
"A mountain lion's main food is deer, and they will follow deer into populated areas," Lee Fitzhugh, a wildlife extension specialist for UC Davis, said in an email.
This year's lion presence may not be much different than usual, Fitzhugh said.
"I am somewhat familiar with San Andreas, and I suspect that mountain lions are close by most of the time. As long as the lion runs from people, there probably isn't too much cause for concern, except for children," Fitzhugh said.
Coss said evidence indicates predators are much more likely to kill young animals or those that suffer from arthritis or other injuries that cause them to limp.
Studies say it is something about the irregular walking motion of the young and old that triggers predators, Coss said.
Coss suggests carrying a stout walking stick made of manzanita or another solid wood. "That's protected people before where they've been able to hit the mountain lion. It doesn't guarantee lack of injury. It just gives you an extra edge," Coss said.
Ranchers take steps
Calaveras County ranchers may be the most aware of the lions. Virtually anyone in lion country who owns goats or sheep loses some to the lions or takes measures to combat them.
"We have guardian dogs," said Billie Hammer, who raises sheep just outside San Andreas. "I use mountain lion dogs, akbash Anatolian dogs."
In almost 40 years, she's seen a lion on her property once. "But it got off before I could shoot it," Hammer said. "Without the dogs, I could not have sheep. They are mountain lion hors d'oeuvres."