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Defining Mountain Lion Depredation in California

By Amy Rodrigues

I. Definition

Historically, the word "depredation" has been used in the context of a military raid or pillaging a village.  In the dictionary, it is defined as: 

  1.  the act of preying upon or plundering; robbery; ravage
  2. A predatory attack; a raid.
  3. Damage or loss; ravage

Wildlife management agencies primarily use the word depredation for instances where a wild predator attacks or preys upon a domestic animal, such as a family pet or livestock.  In places where it is legal to retaliate for this "damage or loss" by having the nuisance wild animal killed, a Depredation Permit is issued to the pet/livestock owner. 

Coincidentally, because the word is the combination of the prefix "de" meaning removal or reversal, and the root "predation," for a wild animal hunting prey, the term "de-predation" is also commonly used to describe the depredation permit in terms of it being the removal of a predator.  So, the initial predatory attack and the resulting permit for killing the lion both use the word depredation, even though a slightly different definition may be implied.  Either way, if a mountain lion damages a person's property in California, a permit must be issued to have the lion killed if one is requested.

 II. History

 Ranching began in North America during the 16th century when early explorers and settlers first brought over livestock from Europe.  Over four-hundred years later, the ranching industry has become a cornerstone of American culture.  During WWI, increasing cattle production to support the troops was seen as a patriotic duty.  Wild animals were either viewed as competition (deer, elk, bison, etc) for grazing resources, or as a liability (wolves, cougars, prairie dogs, beavers, etc) because of predation or causing damage to ranching land.  Thus, wildlife was a problem and viewed as something that needed to be controlled and often removed altogether.

Many people believed then, and often still to this day, that:

Because ranching is so deeply embedded in our past, for centuries, the ranching industry has been able to let livestock roam freely (in many cases on public lands) and as a rule, create barriers to keep their animals in -- not necessarily to keep wild ones out.  When wolves, coyotes, or lions prey on these over-populated and defenseless livestock herds, ranchers can legally kill the predatory wildlife themselves or make a phone call and have a tax-payer-funded professional come out and kill the nearest wolves, coyotes, or lions.  Every state except for Florida allows these depredation retaliation kills on mountain lions even though the scientific community by and large agrees it will not prevent future losses.  Mountain lions are territorial and when one is killed, a new lion will move in to fill the space -- usually a younger and more curious cat -- and may continue the cycle of livestock losses and having lions killed.  Shooting a lion does not undo the death of a domestic animal, does not prevent future depredation attacks, and costs tax payer money.  Yet, our society continues to allow people to kill wild animals for what is commonly seen as only an emotional revenge and false hope it will solve their problem.

Florida is currently the only state that will not issue depredation permits for panthers that threaten or have killed domestic animals.  Residents are allowed to scare a panther away if it is on their property or stalking a pet, but they may not injure or kill it.  This policy is due to the fact panthers are federally listed as a critically endangered species and only an estimated one-hundred are left in the wild.  Every single panther is essential for the recovery of the species.  Because residents do not have the luxury of a depredation permit, it is common knowledge in Florida that they must be responsible pet owners and take preventative measures.  No other state values their lions enough to enact similar policies and require its citizens to be proactive.  Coexisting through non-lethal measures remains a choice and not an obligation, even though it has proven to be a highly successful and relatively cheap way to avoid conflicts with wildlife.  In the Text Box: Spring 2002 -- MLF Review Newsletter Excerpt

Good Neighbors Protect Lions

Lion researchers Ken Logan and Linda Sweanor (authors of Desert Puma) watched helplessly as twelve-month old cougar cub, "M-3" waited for days on the ridge for his mother to come home.

M-3 did not know that his mother had been shot while getting dinner together.  Hungry herself, with a growing boy to feed, the others had come across an unattended sheep that solved her problem.  Her instincts, however, got her killed on a depredation permit.

Finally, attempting to stay close to where his mother left him, M-3 ventured forth to relieve the growing hunger.  He found another unattended goat and goose.

AND NOW M-3 IS DEAD TOO.

"This is one of the saddest situations I've seen," said Logan.  After coming here from other Western states, Logan says he is shocked by what he calls some of Californians' ignorance, and lack of responsibility for their animals.

"The majority of California voters decided they wanted to protect the lion," he continued, "but they are threatening them by building all over their habitat and putting them at higher risk of road kill, encounters with humans, and depredation permit kills."

Logan particularly laments people living in lion habitat that do not take responsibility for keeping their pets out of harm's way and therefore threatening the fate of many carnivores.

He expressed surprise that people put up with this behavior.

"If I had a neighbor that left a pet or hobby animal outside at night," Logan said, "I'd go talk to him and tell him I had a young son that he was putting in danger because he was basically 'baiting' predators into the neighborhood."  In fact, Logan says he would offer to help him build a predator-proof enclosure.

Logan said that a lot of problems could be solved by applying common sense about predators and by being more neighborly.

All over California, the number of mountain lions killed for preying on domestic animals continues to increase...

Read the full articleWest, there is no limit to the number of depredation permits a person may be issued, no prerequisites for animal husbandry (such as not tying a goat to a fencepost over night), and no required education or assistance after the incident to help the owner prevent future losses.

III. Prevention

While killing a lion for depredation is historically common and culturally acceptable, it is not a productive solution and is an unnecessary loss of life.  MLF has created a variety of information and tips for keeping domestic animals safe and coexisting with wildlife.  These resources for non-lethal animal husbandry techniques are available and explained more thoroughly in the Protecting Pets & Livestock section of this website.

The Basics

Never Feed Wildlife

Feeding wildlife such as deer, opossums, or raccoons attracts their predators to your home and creates a safety risk.  Make sure that food set out for pets, livestock, or birds is accessible only to the animals that you are trying to feed.  Fence in vegetable and fruit gardens that might attract wildlife.  Landscape your yard with plants that deer do not like to eat.  The California Department of Fish and Game's Gardener's Guide to Preventing Deer Damage has tips on which plants to grow and which ones to remove.


Keep Your Pets Safe

Cats and dogs are easy prey.  Keep your pets indoors or secure them in a covered run.  At a minimum, bring them indoors between dusk and dawn when lions most actively hunt. 

Install Frightening Devices

Mountain lions depend on surprise to catch their prey.  Installing either motion or timer-activated outdoor lighting around your home and animal enclosures may keep mountain lions away.  You may also try loud noises, sprinklers, flashing lights, or other frightening devices, such as those used to keep birds out of fields (more details).

 Protect Vulnerable Animals

Keep injured, sick and birthing livestock in fully enclosed structures or under your watchful eye.  Immediately remove and destroy afterbirth, carcasses, and other animal byproducts from areas near livestock enclosures or homes as part of responsible Animal Husbandry practices.

Build Livestock Enclosures

The best protection measure is to secure livestock in fully enclosed barns, pens, or sheds.  Place all livestock enclosures, both covered and open, away from any trees or brush that lions might climb or hide within.  Openings, such as windows, doors, or large gaps provide access for highly curious lions.

If covering your pen is not an option then you must build a tall fence.  Mountain lions have been known to jump 15 feet vertically.

Use Guard Animals

Guard dogs specifically bred to protect livestock from predators have been used for thousands of years in Europe.  Studies conducted in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Idaho show that properly trained livestock guard dogs reduce predation by as much as 93 percent.  Livestock guard dogs are not pets, and must be specially raised and trained in order to be effective.  They may also pose a risk to people, and are best suited to large herds in remote locations.

Other guard animals, such as llamas and donkeys, are sometimes effective; although they are primarily used scare away coyotes and dogs, and may not be the best choice for preventing mountain lion depredation.  Horned cattle are also being used in some ranching operations as a deterrent to predators. 

 IV. Getting a Depredation Permit in California

 A. Sighting or Public Safety (No Depredation Permit)

If a mountain lion is seen on one's property, or evidence of a lion is found such as scat, tracks, or a deer kill, a phone call to the California Department of Fish & Game may result in an officer coming out to investigate, or they may simply record your sighting over the phone.  Because there has been no damage or immediate danger, a depredation permit is not issued.  Seeing a lion is not legal cause to kill it.  If the lion has not threatened any people, pets, or livestock, usually it is left alone to move on naturally.  However, if an officer (CDFG or police department) responds and the lion is present, the fate of the cat is generally decided by the responding officer.  If for whatever reason he deems the lion is a threat to public safety -- which can be as simple as "the lion is in an area near people or a school" -- the agencies have the authority to shoot the animal on site, or tranquilize and euthanize it later.  CDFG's current policy (not legal documentation, just merely the internal consensus of the "higher-ups") is to never relocate any mountain lions.  Therefore, officers who want to respond non-lethally have sometimes attempted to scare lions back into the wild with pepper-spray or rubber bullets.

B. Caught in the Act

If a mountain lion is found in the act of attacking a domestic animal or is seen as an immediate threat to human life, it may be killed by a resident, without repercussion, as long as the California Department of Fish & Game is immediately notified after the incident.  CDFG will confirm it was the only option to prevent loss of life to people or property (pets or livestock being the property).  A verbal depredation permit can be issued over the phone and followed up later with the necessary documentation.  It is highly recommended to contact CDFG first, before any action is taken against the lion.  If the Department finds there was no immediate danger, a shooter can be prosecuted for poaching since mountain lions are a specially protected mammal in California.  The local police department and/or county sheriffs office can also respond to mountain lion-public safety calls to a 911 operator.

C. After a Loss

Wildlife Incident Report

If a domestic animal (pet/livestock) is injured or killed by a mountain lion, the owner has the legal right in California to have the mountain lion killed.  The following steps give an overview of the process:

Depredation Permit

  1. Call the California Department of Fish & Game's regional office
  2. They will give the telephone number for a local biologist or warden
  3. The responding officer will visit the property to determine if a lion is responsible
  4. If a lion is responsible, and the owner wants it killed, the officer will
    • fill out a Wildlife Incident Report

    • issue a Depredation Permit (which expires after 10 days)
    • contact the USDA Wildlife Service's local county trapper to come out to track and kill the lion
  5. If the mountain lion returns to the property within 10 days, the homeowner may kill it
  6. If a mountain lion is killed during the 10 day time period
    • a Depredation License Tag is filled out
    • the carcass is turned over to CDFG
    • the Wildlife Services trapper may also fill out a Reportable Animal Action Report

Depredation Permits expire after ten days because lions roam such large territories.  A lion seen in the area after that time may not be the same one that caused the damage. Many biologists believe younger, dispersing lions are more likely to cause depredation, and these cats will often travel hundreds of miles to find a home range. A juvenile dispersing lion may only stay in one area for a few days. Adult resident lions will usually keep the younger ones out. Killing a non-depredating adult lion is not a good idea, as this opens his territory for several younger lions to move in.

CDFG typically freezes and stores the carcasses of mountain lions killed for depredation.  Sometimes, if there is uncertainty about the killed lion being the same one responsible for the depredation, a necropsy (animal version of an autopsy) is performed to analyze stomach contents.  Occasionally CDFG also has events where if museum experts help with necropsies, they can keep the lion pelts for taxidermy displays.  However, because CDFG usually does not preserve the lions with the intention of using them for displays, frostbite and other deterioration damages occur which reduce the quality of the hide.  See example (pictured right) of a display lion whose ears were frostbitten during freezer storage.

V. Depredation Records

If a state game agency keeps a record of depredation, it will generally only keep track of the number of mountain lions that are killed for the offense.  Residents who do not wish to have an offending lion killed do not have to report pet/livestock depredation losses to the state game agency.  In addition to the number of lions killed under depredation permits, California's Department of Fish & Game also keeps track of the number of depredation permits it issues.

You be the judge:

In California, the Department of Fish & Game is the agency responsible for issuing depredation permits and keeping track of the number of lions killed.  However, because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Wildlife Services branch is the agency that hires the county trappers who actually hunt and kill depredating mountain lions, they also document incident reports and lions killed.  More specifically, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), maintains detailed records of all wildlife damage reports and the inventory of kills.  On their website, APHIS lists reports from 1996 through 2007 according to fiscal year.  Although CDFG goes by calendar year, the differences in their records raise some questions about their accuracy in monitoring the number of lions killed and potentially their credibility as a wildlife management agency.

Notice: from 2003 through 2007, APHIS recorded 114 mountain lions killed in addition to CDFG's report of 501 (that's nearly another 23%).  Specific information about each depredation permit is not available to the public (to protect the landowner's privacy), so MLF is unable to verify the actual number of permits or lions killed. 

 

California Mountain Lion Depredation*
Year Permits Issued (CDFG's records) Lions Killed (CDFG's records) Lions Killed (USDA's records)
1972 4 1 N/A
1973 21 4 N/A
1974 21 2 N/A
1975 15 2 N/A
1976 29 6 N/A
1977 39 7 N/A
1978 32 8 N/A
1979 51 21 N/A
1980 41 12 N/A
1981 41 12 N/A
1982 66 18 N/A
1983 63 27 N/A
1984 94 37 N/A
1985 135 58 N/A
1986 130 46 N/A
1987 113 50 N/A
1988 148 61 N/A
1989 182 77 N/A
1990 193 71 N/A
1991 201 73 N/A
1992 195 81 N/A
1993 190 71 N/A
1994 328 121 N/A
1995 331 117 N/A
1996 281 105 67
1997 253 90 71
1998 237 109 91
1999 233 114 102
2000 245 148 139
2001 187 105 121
2002 218 123 104
2003 206 107 110
2004 245 116 133
2005 222 103 120
2006 145 77 115
2007 192 98 137
Total 5327 2278 1310

*does not include lions killed for public safety in the field by responding CDFG or other law enforcement officials

 

Region Breakdown
Region Counties Included Graph
Click to Enlarge
Northern  Del Norte, Humboldt, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou,
Tehama and Trinity
North Central  Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lake,
Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter and Yuba 
Bay Delta  Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara,
Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo
Central  Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Monterey, San Benito,
San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne
South Coast   Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura  
Inland Deserts   Imperial, Inyo, Mono, Riverside and San Bernardino 





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