Mountain lion field research and population estimates have come a long way in the last few decades. Most biologists now agree on an average lion population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state. Marc Kenyon, CDFG's Bear and Lion Coordinator recently (2012) gave credence to that estimate when he stated that California's lion "population size is, in fact, smaller than it was 10 years ago." He attributed this decrease to dwindling lion habitat and the hunting policies in surrounding states. He estimates California's statewide lion population to be approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.
The state of
Since 1972, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) has claimed that there are approximately 4,000 to 6,000 lions residing in California. This rough estimate is based on what CDFG admits is only a "guesstimate," and is clearly too high and outdated.
CDFG originally based their crude population estimate on a series of studies which estimated lion population densities for different habitat types around the state. These density estimates varied from zero to 10 lions per 100 square miles, and were simply extrapolated to accommodate the total amount of available habitat type.
Mountain lion field research and population estimates have come a long way in the last few decades. Most biologists now agree on an average lion population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state.
Marc Kenyon, CDFG's Bear and Lion Coordinator recently (2012) gave credence to that estimate when he stated that California's lion "population size is, in fact, smaller than it was 10 years ago." He attributed this decrease to dwindling lion habitat and the hunting policies in surrounding states. He estimates California's statewide lion population to be approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.
Unfortunately, statewide mountain lion population estimates cannot properly indicate the health of the species. According to noted lion researcher Dr. Rick Hopkins, "It is important to keep in mind that no western state, including California, supports one cougar population. There are several populations in the state that react to changes in their environment independent of one another. It is unrealistic to assume that a statewide population of any species, let alone the cougar, is responding in a similar fashion at the same time. For example, the intense development pressure that the population of cougars is experiencing in Orange County is in no way relevant to what is happening in Humboldt County."
Historically, mountain lions were
heavily persecuted in
In 1969, the state legislature again reclassified mountain lions as a "game mammal." This action was undertaken to control supposed livestock damage and to "manage" mountain lions through regulated hunting.
In 1971 and 1972 California held its only regulated lion-hunting seasons, during which time 118 mountain lions were killed for sport.
In 1971, the state legislature passed new legislation, signed by then governor, Ronald Reagan which placed a moratorium on the sport hunting of mountain lions. The lion hunting moratorium, which started on March 1, 1972, was maintained until 1986 at which time the regulated hunting of mountain lions was once again authorized. Despite this authorization, political pressure from individual citizens and conservation organizations such as the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF) kept lions from being hunted for sport in California over the next four years.
In 1990, a coalition of
conservation organizations, including MLF, placed
Proposition 117 — commonly known as the "mountain lion initiative — on the statewide ballot. This
proposition, the first to have been placed solely
with signatures collected by volunteers in
In 1996, trophy-hunting proponents got the state
legislature to place Proposition 197 on the March
primary ballot. Drafted in part by the Safari Club,
this initiative was presented to voters under the
guise of "public safety" concerns in an effort to
overturn the ban on killing mountain lions for
recreational purposes. Proposition 197 was
overwhelmingly rejected by 58.12 percent of
Since the 1996 failure to repeal the State's lion-hunting ban, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts by lawmakers to introduce legislation that would overturn Proposition 117's lion-hunting restrictions.
At this time,
On September 6, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 132 into law. This groundbreaking legislation (effective January 1, 2014), protects lions that accidentally wander into human-populated areas. Law Enforcement and Wildlife Officers can only kill a lion if it is posing an imminent threat to human life: exhibiting aggressive behavior towards a person that is not due to the presence of first responders.
The new law (F&G Code 4801.5) also allows CDFW to partner with qualified individuals, educational institutions, government agencies, or nongovernmental organizations to implement nonlethal procedures on a mountain lion which include rescue and rehabilitation.
Since 1907 (the first year data is
available) an estimated 15,951 mountain lions have
been killed by humans in
Most of these deaths (12,462) occurred prior to 1963 while mountain lions were considered a bountied predator.
Bounty Period 1907-1963
1971-72 Hunting Period
Depredation Kills 1964-1990
Depredation Kills 1991-2013
Bighorn Sheep Program 1999-2010
Public Safety Kills 1990-2013
Other / Unspecified
Since the passage of Proposition 117, it is estimated that 2,542 mountain lions have been killed in California as a result of issued Depredation Permits, and 144 lions killed for public safety reasons.
Based on a lion-mortality density
model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation,
related occurrences account for 94 percent of all
reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities in
Last Update: April 2014
In California's legal code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as "mountain lion."
The species is classified as a specially protected mammal. The mountain lion is the only species in California with this designation, and at this time there is no directive explaining how specially protected mammals should be conserved.
Under California Fish and Game Code Section 3950.1, which became law in 1990 through Proposition 117, the mountain lion "shall not be listed as, or considered to be, a game mammal by the department or the commission."
Laws pertaining to California's threatened and endangered species currently do not apply to the mountain lion because the species has not been listed. The mountain lion is also not included as a fully protected mammal, or nongame mammal in California.
Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of California is governed by the California Fish and Game Code and Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations. Additionally, state and local agencies are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) under the Public Resources Code. Some federal laws also apply to California wildlife, but usually in conjunction with migratory birds or federally-listed endangered species. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current laws and regulations for the State of California.
The California Fish and Game Code (state law) may be viewed online here. These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name "mountain lion" to accomplish your searches. The California Code of Regulations (state regulations), may be viewed online here, or click here to see every CCR section that mentions "mountain lion."
The California State Legislature is the state's legislative entity. It is a bicameral legislature. The upper chamber is the Senate while the Assembly is the lower chamber. The Senate has 40 members who serve 4-year terms. Twenty Senate seats are up for election during each two-year election cycle. The Assembly is made up of 80 members who serve 2-year terms.
In June 2012, voters passed Proposition 28 which allows members of either chamber to serve a maximum of 12 years total in the legislature. Legislators who were first elected on or before June 5, 2012 are limited to the previous term limits (under 1990's Proposition 140) — three terms in the Assembly and two terms in the Senate.
California's legislature is in session year-round, and convenes on the first Monday in January, except when New Year's Day (January 1) falls on a Sunday or Monday, in which case they meet the following Wednesday.
The Senate has been under Democratic majority continuously since 1970. With the exception of 1995 to 1996, the Assembly has been in Democratic hands since the 1970 as well. The Governor's seat has alternated back and forth between republican and democrat during that time period.
California's laws and regulations (explained above) set the framework for mountain lion treatment in the state. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) uses these official statues to frame their internal mountain lion policies and guidelines. CDFW is the agency responsible for mountain lion management in California.
CDFW is divided into four major divisions: administration, wildlife & fisheries, ecosystem conservation, and law enforcement. Mountain lion management falls under the wildlife and fisheries, and law enforcement divisions.
There are 7 CDFW regions in California. The Department is responsible for implementing and enforcing the regulations set by the Fish and Game Commission, as well as providing biological data and expertise to inform the Commission's decision making process.
The California Fish and Game Commission was the first wildlife conservation agency in the United States, founded in 1870, predating even the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Their general regulations are outlined in the California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Division 1 and Fish and Game Code Division 1. Their rule-making process must also be in compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act. Today, the Commission oversees the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
CDFW annually reports to the California Fish and Game Commission (CFGC) on the status of California's fish and wildlife resources with emphasis on those resources estimated to be at marginal or low levels. In accordance with CCR §660.1, "based upon the best scientific information, [...] the Commission shall then prepare a report on the status of the State's resources for presentation to the Senate Resources & Wildlife Committee and the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee."
The California Fish and Game Commission has a wide range of responsibilities that continually expands and includes:
Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the California state Senate. They serve a six-year term that expires on January 15. After completing a term, Commissioners can be reappointed, or may continue to serve until the Governor appoints a replacement. The Commission must annually elect one of its members as President and one as Vice President.
The CFGC holds twelve meetings a year at various locations throughout the state to encourage public participation. Under the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act of 1967, which facilitates accountability and transparency of government activities and protects the rights of citizens to participate in State government deliberations, Commission meetings are open to the public.
In regards to mountain lions, (FGC §4807), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife "shall undertake a complete necropsy on any returned mountain lion carcass and report the findings to the commission. The commission shall compile the reported findings and prepare an annual written report that shall be submitted to the Legislature not later than the January 15 next following the year in which the mountain lion was taken."
Historically, mountain lions were heavily persecuted in California, classified as a "bountied predator" from 1907 to 1963. During this time, a record 12,462 mountain lions were killed (more than any other state) and turned in for the bounty. The bounty on California's mountain lions was repealed in 1963, and the species was reclassified as a "non-protected mammal." In 1969, the state legislature again reclassified mountain lions as a "game mammal." In 1971 and 1972 California held its only sport hunting seasons on mountain lions, during which time 118 lions were killed.
In 1971, the state legislature and Governor Ronald Reagan passed legislation which placed a moratorium on the sport hunting of mountain lions. The lion hunting moratorium started on March 1, 1972.
Hunting or trapping of mountain lions is not allowed in the State of California. Since Ronald Reagan's moratorium in 1972, (made permanent by the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990), it has been unlawful to take (hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill, or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill), injure, possess, transport, import, or sell any mountain lion or any part or product thereof unless under specific circumstances for public safety, depredation, education, or research.
CCR §265 (3) states "Mountain lions may not be pursued with dogs except under the provisions of a depredation permit issued pursuant to §4803 of the Fish and Game Code. Bear or bobcat may not be pursued with dogs except under the provisions of a permit issued pursuant to sections 3960.2 or 3960.4 of the Fish and Game Code. Dog training on mountain lions is prohibited."
A mountain lion may only be killed in California if it is posing an "imminent threat to public health or safety," which is defined as "a situation where a mountain lion exhibits one or more aggressive behaviors directed toward a person that is not reasonably believed to be due to the presence of responders."
Under FGC §4801.5 (which became law January 1, 2014 after the passage of Senate Bill 132), any situation where a mountain lion does not meet the threshold of imminent threat shall be handled with nonlethal procedures.
"Nonlethal procedures" means procedures that may include, but are not limited to, capturing, pursuing, anesthetizing, temporarily possessing, temporarily injuring, marking, attaching to or surgically implanting monitoring or recognition devices, providing veterinary care, transporting, hazing, rehabilitating, releasing, or taking no action.
Additionally, CDFW may, as the department determines is necessary to protect mountain lions or the public, authorize qualified individuals, educational institutions, governmental agencies, or nongovernmental organizations to implement nonlethal procedures on a mountain lion.
An individual is not guilty of a violation of this section if it is demonstrated that, in taking or injuring a mountain lion, the individual was acting in self-defense or in defense of others. Please see the Poaching section below for information about penalties for illegally killing a mountain lion in California.
Under FGC §4802, "any person, or the employee or agent of a person, whose livestock or other property is being or has been injured, damaged, or destroyed by a mountain lion may report that fact to the department and request a permit to take the mountain lion." Within 48 hours CDFW will investigate, and if "satisfied that there has been depredation by a mountain lion as reported, the department shall promptly issue a permit to take the depredating mountain lion" (FGC §4803).
A depredation permit to take a mountain lion expires 10 days after issuance, requires the permit holder begin pursuit of the lion not more than one mile from the depredation site, and limits the pursuit of the depredating mountain lion to within a 10-mile radius from the location of the reported damage or destruction. Additional depredation permit information and restrictions are described in CCR §402, and §265 allows the use of tracking dogs.
Any person issued a permit pursuant to Section 4803 or 4805 shall report, by telephone within 24 hours, the capturing, injuring, or killing of any mountain lion to an office of the department or, if telephoning is not practicable, in writing within five days after the capturing, injuring, or killing of the mountain lion. At the time of making the report of the capturing, injuring, or killing, the holder of the permit shall make arrangements to turn over the mountain lion or the entire carcass of the mountain lion which has been recovered to a representative of the department and shall do so in a timely manner.
A mountain lion caught in the act of attacking livestock or situations where "immediate authorization will materially assist in the pursuit of the particular mountain lion believed to be responsible for the depredation reported pursuant to §4802, the department or the animal damage control officer may orally authorize the pursuit and taking of the depredating mountain lion, and the department shall issue a written permit for the period previously authorized as soon as practicable after the oral authorization."
FGC §4809 specifies mountain lions authorized to be taken for causing damage or destruction shall be taken by the most effective means available, except that no mountain lion shall be taken by means of poison, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps, and snares.
CDFW is also required to undertake a complete necropsy on any returned mountain lion carcass and report the findings to the commission. These findings are to be included in an annual written report that shall be submitted to the Legislature by January 15. Past reports do not appear to be easily accessible online. CDFW's depredation information is available on the mountain lion page of their website. The United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency is contracted in most California counties to kill lions under depredation permits. Wildlife Services' records are available online, here. Scroll down and click on the pie chart under the "Animals Dispersed / Killed or Euthanized / Freed" section, then in the dropdown menu select "California" to the see the number of mountain lions and other wildlife killed annually by Wildlife Services.
To qualify for a mountain lion scientific collecting permit, a project must be designed to:
Researchers are allowed to pursue, capture, temporarily possess, temporarily injure, mark, attach to or surgically implant monitoring or recognition devices in, provide veterinary care to, and transport, mountain lions, or any part or product of a mountain lion. They must follow the reporting guidelines outlined in §4810(e).
CDFW shall notify the public at least 30 days prior to the issuance of a permit, and, upon request, shall make available to the public copies of the permit and annual and final reports.
Any mountain lion killed during a research project must be turned over to CDFW for a complete necropsy and included in the Commissions annual report to the Legislature.
Additional information and research application links are available on CDFW's mountain lion research permitting webpage. A handful of published studies can be found on their mountain lion research publications page. Long-term studies have taken place in the Santa Ana Mountains and Santa Monica Mountains. More recent studies are also being conducted in the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Francisco's East Bay, and the Sierra National Forest.
It is unlawful to possess a mountain lion carcass, part, or product in California unless one of the following circumstances are met:
According to CCR §251.5 (b), "Live mountain lions may be possessed only under terms of a permit issued by the Department pursuant to section 2150 of the Fish and Game Code or if the owner can demonstrate that the mountain lion was in his/her possession on or before June 6, 1990 under a permit issued pursuant to section 3200 of said code.
CCR §671-671.9 describe the regulations for importation, transportation, and possession of live restricted animals in California.
Mountain lion researchers with a valid Scientific Collecting Permit, in accordance with §4810 may also temporarily possess live mountain lions. And an individual or organization partnering with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to implement nonlethal procedures on a mountain lion to resolve a potential pubic safety threat (§4801.5) may also be allowed to temporarily possess a live lion.
While historic native prey for mountain lions, declines in Bighorn sheep populations have led to a debate over lethally removing mountain lions to increase the size of sheep herds. Under California state law, Fish and Game Code §4801, CDFW "may remove or take any mountain lion, or authorize an appropriate local agency with public safety responsibility to remove or take any mountain lion, [...] that is perceived by the department to be an imminent threat to the survival of any threatened, endangered, candidate, or fully protected sheep species."
The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program lethally removes approximately two mountain lions each year that are believed to be threatening the survival of the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep herd. In their 2011 report, the recovery program noted "Since bighorn were listed in 1999, 22 mountains lions were killed to protect them; 18 had preyed upon bighorn. Four were killed because their location data indicated a significant threat to bighorn."
A Legislative Counsel opinion released in 2011 clarified that Federal contract hunters employed by CDFW must follow state law and not use poison, snares, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps to kill mountain lions, even when the lions pose a threat to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
Desert bighorn sheep that are not endangered may be sport hunted in specific areas.
California state law provides some protection of mountain lions, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again. Violating FGC §4800-4810 or killing a mountain lion is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. An individual is not guilty of a violation of this section if it is demonstrated that, in taking or injuring a mountain lion, the individual was acting in self-defense or in defense of others.
The California Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State's roads. The UC Davis Road Ecology Center researches wildlife road killings in the California, but relies on the public to voluntarily report roadkill observations.
Last Update: June 9, 2014