Community Conservation of California Mountain Lions: A Collaborative Method


The mountain lion (Puma concolor) is the most widespread large native carnivore still sustaining viable populations across the American west. Conservation biologists emphasize the ecological importance of carnivores (Terborgh et al. 1999), which are essential to maintaining the rich biological diversity and integrity of native ecosystems. Yet government agencies charged with wildlife management make lethal habitat-level decisions without reliable information about mountain lion numbers or distribution. There are very few scientifically defensible population estimates (Logan and Sweanor 2001). Thus, the treatment of mountain lions over most of their range is driven by the demands of hunters and related economic returns, rather than by conservation concerns or scientific knowledge. Despite the impact on lion populations caused by the loss of American wilderness and increasing contact with people, the United States is currently conducting the highest level of intentional mountain lion kills ever recorded (Torres 2002).

The State of California has banned sport hunting of mountain lions. As other states struggle with public concerns about hunting predators, California is confronting underlying challenges related to rapid human population growth and intensified land use. Successful conservation of mountain lions will require that the broad spectrum of causes of mortality be considered, along with how those causes actually affect populations of lions, regardless of whether society deems it appropriate to use hunting as a management tool. The methods to reduce unnecessary lion kills developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation in California stress community involvement and collaboration, and may serve as a model as other western states experience similar growth.

The Significance of Mountain Lions

California is home to 33 million people, a number expected to nearly double within the next 50 years. California's people, domestic animals, agriculture, native plants and animals all depend on naturally functioning ecosystems in which carnivores like the mountain lion play an essential role.

California is listed as a global "hot spot" for biodiversity, a place with an especially rich array of the plants and animals that regulate climate, cleanse air and water, and provide nutrients to the soil. As of January 2000, more than 20 percent of California's remaining native species were classified as endangered, threatened, or of "special concern," with 140 animal species in danger of extinction.

Research has demonstrated that the loss of large carnivores in an area, even when the carnivores themselves are not listed as threatened or endangered, can have a profound effect on the survival of other plants and animals. Logan and Sweanor (2001) concluded that the mountain lion 1) strongly influences energy flow in ecosystems; 2) is a strong selective force on prey animals; 3) modulates prey population dynamics; 4) indirectly affects herbivory on plant communities; and 5) influences competition between herbivores.

In determining where we should spend limited public and private dollars for conservation areas and linkages, the value of knowing about mountain lion populations and movements is unrivaled, because they are so sensitive an indicator of a region's biological health.  The groundbreaking Missing Linkages report identified more than 200 wildlife corridors that will be required in order to prevent the isolation of remaining wildlands in California (Penrod 2000). Expert teams of wildlife biologists identified the mountain lion as a focal species in 179 of those corridors (Beier 2002).

The value of a wild animal is not easily quantified. Hunters, guides, ranchers, conservationists, wildlife watchers, photographers, artists, children, rural and urban residents and biologists will all assign different values depending on their experiences, vested interests, and moral codes. Yet the very breadth and depth of values applied to the mountain lion are indicative of the species' significance: biological, economic, and social.

History

From 1907 to 1963, California mountain lions were listed as a bountied predator and bounty hunters reported 12,461 lion kills, an average of 215 per year. Grizzly bears and wolves were extirpated from the state during this period. In 1963, lions, the state's only remaining large predator, were listed as a non-game mammal and could be hunted at any time of year in any number. They were reclassified as a game mammal in 1969, and during the two seasons of 1970 and 1971, 118 lions were killed for trophies.

In 1972 a legislative moratorium signed by Governor Ronald Reagan suspended the mountain lion hunt. A direct vote of the citizenry, Proposition 117, ended sport hunting of California lions in 1990. This initiative, sponsored by the Mountain Lion Foundation, also allocated 30 million dollars each year, for 30 years, to acquire and preserve wildlife habitat. Either a 4/5 vote of the legislature or another vote of the people would be required to change the law. In 1997, a challenge to Proposition 117 was defeated in another statewide election.

The most recent conservation efforts in California have focused on slowing the loss of wildlife habitat resulting from human population growth. Habitat loss reduces the size, frequency and diversity of wilderness areas, which become incapable of sustaining viable populations of large predators. Habitat fragmentation isolates populations by blocking the linkages that are necessary for dispersal and genetic interchange. In areas such as California's Santa Monica Mountains, mountain lion populations are stressed and isolated to the degree that extirpation is an imminent threat.

Very recently, wildlife biologists and conservation advocates have recognized the importance of reducing other causes of mortality: road kills, poaching, prey protection, scientific research, orphaned kittens, disease or injury, poisoning and, particularly, kills made in response to depredation on pets or livestock.

Biologist Steven Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game has identified the following needs for the mountain lion policies of public agencies:

  •  Broaden the scope of management plans, redefining management in a conservation biology context considering long-term viability, metapopulations, regional habitat planning, & habitat suitability.
  • Encourage agencies to develop data standards to share, and allow regional management.
  • Maintain accurate records of all removals.
  • Reevaluate current management policies (i.e. depredation) as they may relate to viability of populations.
  • Recognize the challenge of habitat conservation and align all advocates for wildlife, including hunting & non-hunting interests.
  • upport good science and the use of new technologies to address management issues.

Although agencies are beginning to acknowledge the importance of mountain lion conservation, public acknowledgment is slow to follow. The publicity surrounding the cessation of sport hunting has led people to believe that mountain lions are truly protected in California. Yet, in the year 2000, 149 cougars were killed under depredation permits in California. Many more lions are killed each year for depredation than were hunted for sport, and kills are approaching those of the bounty period.

In addition, encounters with a growing human population have led to the mistaken public perception that mountain lion numbers are increasing. Yet, according to the best estimates of the California Department of Fish and Game, populations are declining in most of the state.

Californians generally believe that their mountain lions are recovering in numbers and are protected from harm. They are not.

Depredation Trends

Although mountain lions are now listed as "specially protected," they are still being systematically killed for preying on domestic animals. Californians, who voted to protect their native lion, have also requested and received 4,106 cougar depredation permits in the last three decades.

To date, more than 1,650 mountain lions have been killed as a result. To focus conservation efforts, the Mountain Lion Foundation studied ten years (1991-2001) of state-issued depredation permits compiled by Steven Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game. The records show a steady increase in mountain lion deaths over the past decade. This trend spiked in the year 2000 when mountain lions killed for depredation increased by one-quarter over the previous year (149, up from 114). On average, a mountain lion is killed in California every two-and-a-half days, despite their protected status.

The number of depredation permits issued for livestock losses incurred by traditional, economically viable, open range ranching operations has remained fairly constant. Two other factors are the primary causes of the increase in issuance of depredation permits.  As urban areas grow, the length of the urban fringe, where suburbs meet the countryside, also expands. This growth, and the popularity of "ranchettes" and "hobby farms" in rural areas, has increased the frequency of domestic animals coming into conflict with wildlife. At the same time, such development dramatically reduces remaining wildlife habitat relative to the number of people the growth accommodates. It is no surprise that permits based on domestic pet and horse losses to mountain lions have recently tripled and doubled respectively.

At the turn of the millennium, the federal Wildlife Services Program, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, modified its method of response to depredation incidents. By devoting hunters and hounds specifically trained to the task of treeing large cats, rather than using more generally trained local staff, the success rate for lion depredation hunts rose markedly.

Geography

The Mountain Lion Foundation has identified three distinct geographic clusters where a disproportionate number of depredation permits were requested and lions killed over the past 30 years:
The Central Coast
Monterey & San Luis Obispo counties.
302 permits, 120 lions killed

The North Coast and Cascades
Mendocino, Humboldt, Shasta & Siskiyou counties.
1,124 permits, 551 lions killed

The Central Sierra Nevada
Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras & Tuolumne counties.
971 permits, 328 lions killed

The Central Coast
Monterey & San Luis Obispo counties.
302 permits, 120 lions killed

These twelve counties are responsible for 58 percent (2,397) of all the lion related depredation permits issued since 1972, and 62 percent (1,024) of the lions killed under the process. They also account for 68 percent of the lions killed under depredation permits in California in the year 2000, and 62 percent in 2001.

The geographic regions where depredation kills are clustered are generally rural areas with large prey populations and adequate cover for mountain lions. They are also areas that are experiencing subdivision of large holdings into ranchettes and hobby farms, which in many cases are home to new area residents, arriving from more urban areas.

Mountain lions in other areas of the state are also in trouble. Fewer depredation permits are issued on the urban fringe, primarily because urban residents have been demonstrably more supportive of mountain lion conservation goals than their rural counterparts.  Unfortunately, although appreciation of lions is higher in the cities, so are other significant causes of anthropogenic mortality, particularly road kill. Anecdotal information also indicates that public safety kills are more likely to occur on the urban fringe, where the mere sighting of a lion behaving naturally may be deemed by law enforcement to constitute an imminent hazard.

Population Management and Control

Since mountain lions are not listed as threatened or endangered, why try to limit anthropogenic causes of mountain lion mortality?  Mountain lions are a solitary, territorial species with a low birth-survival rate - fewer than half survive even two years. These factors naturally limit lion populations.

It should generally be unnecessary to "control" mountain lions at the habitat level. Most habitat level control efforts are focused on reducing naturally regulated populations of lions in order to increase prey populations for hunting (such as those proposed in Oregon, Arizona, and New Mexico in 2001), or in response to public demands related to perceived agricultural losses or public safety concerns (Washington State, 2002) that fail to recognize the very low relative risk posed by naturally regulated mountain lion numbers.

In the 2001 edition of The Philosophy and Practice of Wildlife Management, Gilbert & Dodds note that: "We must recognize that humans, acting either as predators (hunters) or as eliminators of habitat, constitute an additive factor. In reality most mortality in natural populations is indeed additive. Certainly populations generally produce a surplus annually, but this may be small or even locally nonexistent under natural conditions. Even small additions to mortality may precipitate a decline in numbers of individuals in future generations of species with low productivity."

Habitat loss; depredation kills; concerted, funded, and organized efforts to reduce mountain lion numbers; as well as other increasing anthropogenic causes of mortality, seriously threaten some subpopulations of California mountain lions. These were the causes for extirpation of the species in the eastern United States. If sustaining natural ecosystems and their wildlife populations is a worthy conservation goal, then reducing the avoidable anthropogenic causes for mortality is worthy of attention in order to reduce unnatural stress on subpopulations of concern.

Conservation Goals

If action is required in order to sustain remaining mountain lion populations, then which causes of mortality ought to be addressed?  There is no question that providing adequate wilderness is the most significant goal for mountain lion survival. At a 2002 conservation forum organized by the Mountain Lion Foundation at the Defenders of Wildlife Meetings in Monterey, California, 15 of 19 mountain lion specialists expressed serious concern about the escalating impacts of human development in the American west. The Mountain Lion Foundation has been responsible for the conservation of more than one million acres of habitat. Many other organizations also work to ensure habitat conservation in California, a state with more than 200 successful land trusts. Many of the best minds in the state are now devoted to habitat conservation.

But even given this intense effort, it is questionable whether land conservation, through fee-simple acquisition or easements, will provide sufficient support to sustain remaining populations of large predators. Development pressures are intense. Exacerbating the problem, very few conservation properties that are managed for open space - parks, open spaces, wildlife refuges, state and national forests, and other public lands - provide a safe haven for large carnivores like the mountain lion. With very few exceptions, grazing leaseholders in conservation areas retain the right to demand that public agencies kill predators for depredation on private livestock. This is often true even for those lands that are managed specifically as wildlife habitat: many are managed to benefit certain species preferentially. There are few true sanctuaries for predators.

Thus, it may be reasonable to combine habitat conservation efforts with cost-effective methods for reducing other causes of mortality. Of these, depredation kills are the most prevalent and the most preventable. Such kills are costly: issuing a permit costs taxpayers up to $500 per lion. And depredation kills are ineffective. They do not resolve the problems that lead people to request a permit. A kill does not compensate for economic loss, nor does it generally prevent further depredation.

In a few cases, depredation may be the result of an elderly, diseased, or injured lion seeking available prey in desperation. In these cases, removal of the animal may be justified.

But killing a mountain lion due to the loss of a domestic animal usually does little to protect the rancher's livestock or the homeowner's pet. Unlike canids such as wolves, coyotes and foxes, and unlike bears, science has not demonstrated that mountain lions commonly become habituated to livestock depredation. In the case of these large cats, depredation seems to be much more opportunistic. Removing resident mountain lions may in fact cause more livestock losses by opening a territory to younger, less capable, and inexperienced lions.

More scientific research needs to be accomplished in order to clarify these issues, but agricultural losses to mountain lions cost so little relative to other predators, such as coyotes and bears, that there is little financial support for scientific investigation of lion depredation behavior.

The bureaucratic process following a lion depredation tends to encourage the issuance of a permit to kill, which, by California law, may not be denied to landowners for verified mountain lion depredations, regardless of the standard of protection or care provided for domestic animals. Government agencies proceed with the kill, and permitees are often unaware of the consequences, sometimes believing that the lion will simply be relocated. The average permitee bears no cost and little sense of responsibility for the kill.

To the frustration of overworked wardens, little helpful information is readily available to permitees about how to avoid future depredations or encounters. Therefore, many permitees are repeat customers. These repetitions highlight the need to mitigate damage by employing safeguards for the domestic animals, thereby addressing the underlying causes of depredation, so that it will not be so likely to recur. Almost invariably, the domestic animals taken by lions have been left unprotected during dawn and dusk, the hours in which lions are most likely to hunt. Lions in California seldom prey on cattle. More commonly, sheep, goats, chickens, and domestic cats and dogs are lost.

For example, a ranching family in Northern California managed a large herd of cattle in pastures surrounding their residence, where mountain lions were seen frequently. Not one of their herd has been lost to a lion. In fact, the local game warden notes that in his years in this large cattle ranching region, he has never validated a lion kill on cattle, although he has permitted the killing of more than 70 lions for depredation during his tenure. The family, however, also maintained nine goats on the steep hillside in front of their home. The goats were barbwire fenced within five acres, in order to keep down grass and weeds that might endanger the home during a wildfire. The family indicated that they had selected goats for this service for environmental reasons, in order to avoid the use of herbicides. Over a six-year period, eight goats were killed by lions. The warden validated seven of the depredations as caused by lions, and over the period, six lions were killed, one per year, each following the loss of a goat. In interviews, the family indicated that they feared that the presence of lions in the vicinity of their goats constituted a hazard for their children, and that this had guided the decision to request repeated permits.

Just down the road, six chickens were lost over five years, and five lions were killed as a result.

The presence of lions in an area is related to the availability of prey. Leaving pets unprotected actually attracts predators into neighborhoods where children play, increasing the likelihood of both depredation and public safety concerns. In areas where deer are plentiful, feeding wildlife will draw wild creatures closer to homes, and predators are likely to follow. Many "new" rural residents living in lion country - suburban or city dwellers for most of their lives - enjoy the presence of wildlife and tend to agree with basic conservation concepts, but continue old habits in their new environment.

Given the reasons that people request depredation permits - to protect their domestic animals, mitigate economic loss, and increase public safety - safeguarding the domestic animals from depredation through non-lethal protective methods is a much more scientifically defensible, effective and less costly approach than the lethal alternative, and is a worthy conservation goal.

Living with Lions

In an effort to reduce the number of mountain lions killed for depredation and public safety concerns in California, the Mountain Lion Foundation developed a program called Living With Lions. The program is guided by six principles:

  • Gather information & explore complex issues: Know the science. Listen to people's stories. Identify the sources of controversy.
  • Understand people's attitudes and concerns: Reflect on how community and individual beliefs and experiences affect people's decisions.
  • Affirm people's sense of responsibility: Elicit how wildlife is valued, and the degree to which people know and accept community standards for animal husbandry.
  • Collaborate in the community: Use the diversity and intensity of knowledge, values and opinions to identify the best range of methods to safeguard people, pets, and livestock. Develop incentives for conservation.
  • Inform the decisions of individuals and groups: Provide people with simple, detailed, inexpensive safeguards, and give them good reasons for adopting methods that reflect their own values and experiences. When a depredation incident occurs, provide the best possible information.
  • Create consensus: Involve those who are influential in the community. Encourage media to report on the contribution of the community to protecting livestock and lions. Develop support for eventual changes to law and policy.

The goal of the Living with Lions program is to reduce the number of lions killed unnecessarily as a result of conflicts with people, pets or livestock, by encouraging Californians to meet higher standards for domestic animal care and protection.

The Indian Valley Project

The Mountain Lion Foundation's Indian Valley Project is the first of several regional projects designed to demonstrate the efficacy of non-lethal methods for reducing mountain lion depredation. The traditional ranching community of Indian Valley is located 80 miles north of Lake Tahoe in California's northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, and is surrounded by the Plumas National Forest.

The Foundation selected this community for the initial model because:

  •  Large acreage holdings are being subdivided for development of ranchettes and hobby farms, many of which are home to unprotected pets and livestock.
  •  Game wardens in the valley have note that lion depredation kills are increasing dramatically, and that incidents often occur repetitively on the same property by successive lions (Orange, 2001).
  • California Department of Fish and Game biologists have identify the region as having the highest concentration of mountain lion sightings on the west slope of the Sierra Nevadas (Lidberg, 2001).
  •  Scientists point to the western slopes of the Sierra as the region where lion populations will be most imperiled for preventable reasons in coming decades (Torres, Chow 2001).

Meetings with the game warden and depredation permitees in Indian Valley identified a central feature of the depredation problem there: goats and sheep raised primarily for enjoyment or animal husbandry education, only incidental for economic return. In-depth interviews with 4-H leaders uncovered deeper causes for the high depredation losses in the valley. For example, the timing of the Plumas County fair required that kidding and lambing of show animals occur very early in the year, when snow still covered the ground and mountain lions are most challenged to take natural prey.

Because 4-H stresses leadership, education and high standards of animal husbandry, it was the obvious choice for a community partnership.

The forty members of the Wolf Creek and Indian Valley 4-H clubs were well aware of the lions in their neighborhoods. Many had lost a 4-H project animal or a pet to lion depredation. When the Mountain Lion Foundation provided programs on "Farm Day" at the local elementary school, nearly every child raised a hand to indicate that they had seen a mountain lion. At a more focused lion education program presented by Foundation staff at a 4-H picnic, the savvy questions posed by 4-H members, their parents and neighbors, were indicative of the level of experience the audience had with lions. Their anecdotes meshed with scientific data about lions, and with the reports of game wardens relative to reported lion conflicts in the area.

When offered the opportunity to collaborate, 4-H members brought their considerable knowledge of livestock husbandry to the task of protecting domestic animals. The conservation biologists from the Mountain Lion Foundation contributed current science about mountain lion biology and behavior. Together, a team evaluated 4- H member properties to determine the best animal husbandry methods for reducing lion depredation. They considered the use of "lion-proof" enclosures, guard animals, shed birthing, shepherding, frightening devices, and other protection methods. Without urging, the young people began to adopt new practices, and to informally monitor how well various methods protected livestock and discouraged lions from revisiting the area. Through 4-H participation in the project, future livestock owners and their parents were introduced to conservation concepts and higher standards of domestic animal care. They acted as opinion leaders, communicating conservation strategies throughout the community.

One of the team's first discoveries was that detailed plans for building effective lion-proof enclosures were not readily available, either through livestock resources or the scientific literature. In autumn 2002, work parties from the local 4-H Clubs and the Mountain Lion

Foundation built the first lion-proof goat pen, and 4-H members exhibited the project at the county fair. Hoping to make the new information available to everyone who was motivated to protect their animals, the partners collaborated on a brochure focused on successfully raising goats in mountain lion country. The team also produced detailed blueprints, materials and tools lists to build the ideal protective enclosure. In October, on the 100th Anniversary of 4-H, fourteen newspapers throughout the Sierra Nevada published reports on the project, reaching a combined circulation of more than 400,000 people. More than 100 Sierra residents called to request plans for building lion-proof pens and corrals.

The project took a community-centered approach to investigating the causes of human conflicts with lions, and stressed hands-on problem solving methods. Throughout the unusual collaboration, Mountain Lion Foundation staff learned the importance of acknowledging their role as students of rural lifestyles. Careful listening led to creative problem solving. How, for example, should animal safeguards be taught to new area residents, unfamiliar with the challenges and responsibilities of living with lions? By listening carefully to former permitees, the team discovered that veterinarians are often a first point of community contact for new residents that own domestic animals. Therefore these respected professionals will be an important resource for distributing program brochures and blueprints.

People in Indian Valley felt that the project was their own, and each participant demonstrated, through example, the value of maintaining higher standards of domestic animal care. The result is a true "winwin" solution. Ranchers permanently protect their livestock. People protect their pets. Dangerous attractants to predators are reduced. Ecosystems and wildlife get healthier. Neighborhoods get safer. Eventually, as the program expands, there will be fewer mountain lions killed unnecessarily in California, by reducing the number of requests for depredation permits.

Acknowledgements

Our Living with Lions program is funded through grants from the Richard and Rhonda Goldman Fund, the Thelma Doelger Fund for Animals, the National Wildlife Federation, the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, the Wendy P. McCaw Foundation and by generous contributions from Mountain Lion Foundation members.

References

Beier, Paul & Kristeen Penrod. 2002. Carnivores as focal species in the South Coast Missing Linkages Project. Carnivores 2002 Conference, Monterey, CA.

Logan, Ken., & Linda Sweanor. 2001. Desert Puma: Evolutionary ecology and conservation of an enduring carnivore. Washington, D.C.: Island Press

Terborgh, John, et al. 1999. The role of top carnivores in regulating terrestrial ecosystems. In Continental Conservation, edited by Soule and Terborgh, 39-64. Wash., D.C.: Island Press

Torres, Steven and Heather Keogh. 2001. Mountain lion management in western North America: A 100-year retrospective. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Wildlife Society Conference, Reno, NV.

Torres, Steven, Heather Keough, & Deanna Dawn. 2002. Puma Management in Western North America: a 100 year retrospective. Carnivores 2002 Conference, Monterey, CA.

Penrod, Kristeen Missing Linkages, Fall 2001 (www.calwild.org/pubs/reports/linkages).