Mendocino County Kills Most Mountain Lions: Legal Shootings On Rise As State Permits Increase Along With Sightings Mountain Lion Tally
By Kerry Benefield
Mendocino County leads California in state-sanctioned mountain lion killings, with more than double the number of the next highest county.
Between 1990 and 2004, 235 lions have been legally killed in Mendocino County. Siskiyou County on the Oregon border ranks second, with 115 lions killed, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
The numbers do not surprise state and local officials, who say lion sightings are on the rise.
“Without a doubt, I have been here on the coast for over 30 years, and within the last five or six years, the population has increased,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. D.L. Miller, who two years ago shot and killed an attacking lion.
State estimates put California’s mountain lion population at roughly 6,000, but officials say there is no scientific procedure for accurately tracking the secretive animals’ numbers.
State-approved killings are climbing dramatically. In 1970, four depredation permits were issued resulting in the killing of one lion. In 2004, 231 permits were issued and 115 animals were killed, down from a peak in 2000 when 148 lions were taken.
In order to receive a depredation permit, applicants must prove a mountain lion is responsible for any loss of life or property. Typically, once a permit is issued, a federal agent is contracted to kill the animal.
It is illegal to kill a mountain lion unless a person or property is immediately threatened.
“Under law, we shall issue a depredation permit if you can prove that there is damage to your property or livestock,” said Troy Swauger, Fish and Game spokesman. “But you have to take reasonable steps to remove whatever is inviting that animal in.”
Deer are a main target of mountain lions, but the cats are also drawn to chickens and some domestic animals.
Mountain lions rarely attack humans. Only 15 attacks, six of them fatal, have been verified since 1890, according to state records. Two of those attacks occurred in Mendocino County, when a pair of campers were injured by a rabid cat in 1994.
In the past year, at least eight mountain lion sightings have been reported in Sonoma County. The latest encounter occurred in October just outside Santa Rosa city limits, when a man watched a lion chase a deer near his Rincon Valley home.
Since 1990, 56 mountain lions have been legally killed in Sonoma County.
Over the same period, 34 lions have been taken in Lake County and 49 killed in Napa County.
Although violent encounters between mountain lions and humans are uncommon, Miller had a face-to-face run-in with an attacking cat two years ago near Fort Bragg.
Responding to a mountain lion sighting on private property but near an elementary school and residences, Miller twice circled a chicken coop where the cat had been seen before a mountain lion leaped at him.
“He jumped out of the tree towards me and was probably 15 to 20 yards away from me,” he said. “He moved so quick.”
Miller said he shot the cat once and killed it.
The Mountain Lion Foundation, a Sacramento-based advocacy group, contends urban sprawl and human population growth are major factors in more interaction between humans and the typically shy cats.
The group tries to educate people on ways to keep their property protected while not harming the lions. Animal pens with roofs, electric fences and completely closed barns will typically keep the cats out, according to Karen Cotton, director of outreach for the foundation.
Some landowners contend they have been successful in keeping cats out by playing loud music, and even spooking the cats with roaming donkeys and llamas, Cotton said.
“We would rather see an animal that has been shocked than one that has been shot,” she said.
Experts say mountain lions are not likely to attack humans. But if hikers or bikers do meet up with a lion, the best strategy is to be still, be big and be loud.
“If you are a deer, they are aggressive, but we are something that they don’t want or need,” Swauger said. “But even if you have never seen a mountain lion, there is probably a chance that a mountain lion has seen you.”
News researcher Vonnie Matthews contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.