AFTER THE HUNT: CHALLENGES FACING CALIFORNIA'S
MOUNTAIN LION POPULATION
The cougar (Puma concolor) is
one of only two large native carnivores with viable populations across the
western United States. Current cougar management focuses on sport hunting,
despite a lack of scientifically defensible population estimates in most areas
(Logan and Sweanor 2001). California is the only western state that prohibits
sport hunting of cougars, however, according to the California Department of
Fish and Game, cougar populations are believed to be declining in several
regions of the state. Conservation efforts in California have focused on slowing
the loss of mountain lion habitat. Habitat fragmentation results from the growth
of human populations in both urban and rural areas. It isolates cougar
populations by blocking corridors necessary for dispersal and genetic
interchange and by reducing the size, frequency and diversity of core wilderness
areas so that they become incapable of sustaining viable populations of large
Very recently, some biologists have recognized the importance
of reducing other human caused mortality: road kills, poaching, public safety
kills, and predator control in response to depredation on pets or livestock. In
the year 2000, 149 cougars were legally killed under depredation permits in
California. To better focus conservation efforts on reducing the frequency of
unnecessary lethal control, we analyzed 10 years (1991-2001) of state issued
depredation permits that had been databased and studied previously by Steve
Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game. Permits were clustered in
the counties along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, North Coast
and Cascades, and on the Central Coast. This analysis is guiding the Mountain
Lion Foundation's conservation program in California and throughout the west.
HISTORY AND MANAGEMENT
mountain lions were subject to the same state and federally sponsored
eradication programs as the wolf, grizzly bear, and coyote. From 1907 to 1963,
mountain lions were listed as a bountied predator. During this period, 12,461
mountain lions were reported killed, an average of 215 per year. As a solitary
species with a low birth-survival rate (studies show fewer than half of all
cougars survive to the age of two), mountain lion populations did not readily
rebound following these aggressive removal methods. When the bounty program
ended, mountain lions were listed as unprotected, and could be hunted at any
time of year in any number, until their reclassification to game mammal in 1969.
During the two subsequent hunting seasons, 118 additional lions were killed.
1972, a legislative moratorium, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, halted the
trophy hunting of lions and in 1990, Proposition 117, a citizen-backed
initiative sponsored by the Mountain Lion Foundation, prohibited the killing of
mountain lions for sport in California and provided 10 million dollars per year
for preservation of deer and cougar habitat. A 4/5 vote of the legislature or
another vote of the people would be required to overturn these provisions. In
1997, an initiative challenge to Proposition 117 failed.
mountain lions are now listed as "specially protected," they are still being
systematically destroyed for preying on livestock and pets. Since 1972, more
than 1,600 lions have been killed in California under depredation permits. The
number of permits issued for losses incurred by traditional open range livestock
operations have tended to remain fairly constant. In addition to the losses
expected as urban areas expand, the popularity of "ranchettes" and hobby farm"
development throughout the state has increased the level of cougar conflicts
with humans, while at the same time dramatically reducing available habitat.
Permits issued based on domestic pet and horse losses to mountain lions have
recently tripled and doubled respectively.
While conservation biologists
increasingly recognize the ecological importance of large carnivores (Terborgh
et al. 1999), the management of mountain lions over most of their range
continues to be dictated by hunting-driven management philosophies rather than
by conservation (Torres 2001). DEPREDATION PERMIT AND KILL
From 1972-2001 Californians, who have voted repeatedly to
protect their native lion, have also requested and received 4,106 cougar
depredation permits. To date, more than 1,661 mountain lions have been killed as
part of this process, an average of 57 per year.
state's depredation records show a steady increase in mountain lion deaths over
the past decade. This trend spiked in the year 2000 when mountain lion deaths
increased by one-quarter (149, up from 114) over the previous year. This
averages out to a mountain lion being killed in California every two-and-a-half
days, despite their protected status. The rise in reported incidents results
from increased human development and activity in mountain lion habitat, and a
lack of information on the part of new rural residents. Lions have been killed
for depredation on goats, sheep, calves, chickens, and even native swans, ducks
and deer, if they are considered to be "domesticated."
DEPREDATION PERMIT CLUSTERS IN CALIFORNIA
A review of
depredation permits issued by California over the past 29 years point to three
distinct geographic clusters where a disproportionate number of permits were
requested and lions killed.
Coast and Cascades
1,124 permits, 551 lions killed
Humboldt, Shasta & Siskiyou counties Central Sierra Nevada
971 permits, 328 lions killed
Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador,
Calaveras & Tuolumne countiesCentral Coast
permits, 120 lions killed
Monterey & San Luis Obispo counties
counties account for 58 percent (2,397) of all the cougar depredation permits
issued since 1972, and 62 percent (1,024) of all lions killed under the process.
These 12 counties accounted for 68 percent (102/149) of the lions killed during
in California during 2000 and 62 percent (69/111) of those killed during 2001.
California is home to 33 million people, a number expected to nearly
double within the next 50 years. The effect of this burgeoning human population
on wildlife is evident. As of January 2000, more than 20 percent of Californias
remaining native species were classified as endangered, threatened, or of
special concern, with 140 of the animal species listed in danger of extinction.
The groundbreaking Missing Linkages report
(www.calwild.org/pubs/reports/linkages; published Fall 2001) identified more
than 200 corridors needed to prevent isolation of remaining wildlands in
California. Mountain lions are a sensitive indicator of a regions loss of
wilderness. 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. Since mountain lions require large blocks of habitat linked by
corridors, they are an ideal focal species for conservation efforts.
intervention, the combination of managing lions by removal occurring
simultaneously with the projected habitat loss and fragmentation will be lethal
for the California lion. These were the causes for extirpation of the cougar in
the eastern United States.
Many organizations work to ensure habitat
protections in California, a state with a remarkable number of successful land
trusts. But few groups concern themselves with limiting the number of animals
killed for depredation.
In an effort to reduce the number of mountain
lions killed for depredation reasons in California, the Mountain Lion Foundation
has developed a program called Living With Lions: Changing Perceptions.
Killing a predator because of the loss of a domestic animal does very little to
protect a ranchers livestock or a homeowners pet. Some researchers have
hypothesized that removing resident mountain lions may be causing more livestock
losses then it is preventing. Unmitigated depredation kills cost the lives of
domesticated animals and native wildlife, at substantial expense to taxpayers.
The process following a lion depredation encourages the issuance of a
permit, which may not be denied by law for verified depredations. Local, state
or federal agencies then proceed with the kill, with the permitee often unaware
of the consequences, thinking the lion will be relocated. The permitee bears no
cost for the kill. To the frustration of overworked wardens, little helpful
information is readily available to the permitees about how they might avoid
future depredations or encounters, and thus many permitees are repeat customers.
It is these repetitions which argue for the need to mitigate initial damages
through educational programs and husbandry standards, addressing the causes of
the depredation, so that it will not be so likely to recur.
Our goal is
to encourage Californians to use appropriate safeguards and non-lethal predator
aversion methods as the accepted standards for doing business. The projects
public education efforts focus on teaching the regions' new rural residents how
to live in lion country. Many of these people, suburban or city dwellers for
most of their lives, already tend to agree with basic environmental precepts,
but continue urban habits in their new environment. Subsequently their pets or
hobby animals are killed and depredation permits are issued.
staff and scientists work closely with government, credible local ranchers,
agricultural groups and other organizational partners to help develop and
implement workable non-lethal predator aversion options in the projects
traditional rural target communities.
Foundation staff has learned as much from rural landowners as they have
taught. One of the first lessons was the value of acknowledging our role as
students of rural lifestyles, which increased our acceptance dramatically. We
discovered, for example, that veterinarians are often the first point of
community contact for new residents. We are developing a set of materials for
distribution by these respected professionals. We learned that environmentalists
are often the worst offenders in attracting wildlife to human communities, and
have countered this with a campaign to promote an understanding that prey
attracts predators, and predators may threaten safety, so a good neighbor will
not feed the wildlife. We learned that many people use goats and sheep to keep
down annual grasses, because they do not want to use herbicides for
environmental reasons, and we have encountered cases where a lion is lost every
year for preying on those goats, their owners not understanding the predator's
role in the local ecology. Perhaps most important, we have learned to enjoy
working alongside local residents to create barriers to predation, and we have
learned to love goat ice cream.
Together with potential permitees we
will demonstrate, through example, the value of behavioral changes. This can be
a true win-win situation. Ranchers will permanently protect their livestock. Pet
owners protect their pets. Dangerous attractants to predators such as feeding of
native wildlife is reduced. Eventually, there will be fewer mountain lions
killed unnecessarily in California by reducing the number of rural requests for
depredation permits. INDIAN VALLEY PROJECT
Surrounded by the Plumas National Forest, the traditional ranching community of
Indian Valley is located 80 miles north of Lake Tahoe in Californias northern
Sierra Nevada Mountains. We selected this community because:
undergoing the fragmentation of large acreage holdings and intrusion of
ranchettes and hobby farms that many of the states rural communities are
CDFG biologists have identified the region as having as
high a concentration of mountain lion sightings as any comparable area on the
west slope of the Sierra Nevada, the area where viable cougar populations will
be most imperiled in the next decade.
Game wardens have noted that the
number of lions killed as a result of depredation in this area has increased
dramatically. Indian Valley is planned to be the first of many regional
demonstration projects. By incorporating the involvement of local 4H groups into
the project, we are introducing non-lethal predator practices to future
livestock owners and their parents.
40 members of the local chapter of 4H which specializes in goats and sheep is
participating in the demonstration project. They are constructing several
lion-proof enclosures and exploring the use of other non-lethal predator
aversions, monitoring to determine how well these methods protect domesticated
livestock and discourage lions from revisiting the area. The members act as
opinion leaders communicating these ideas throughout the community.
first step was an extensive evaluation by a conservation biologist of the
subject properties to determine which method or combination of non-lethal
predator aversion methods would work best. In July, work parties from the local
4H Club and the Mountain Lion Foundation will build fences and pens, and exhibit
the project at the county fair. Based on final monitoring reports additional
measures may be implemented in 2003. A citizen advisory panel made up of
ranchers, youth volunteers, California Department of Fish and Game, and the
local 4H club leaders will work closely with the Mountain Lion Foundation,
helping us to evaluate the success of the project and assisting in conducting
the broader public education effort. Upon completion of the monitoring period, a
brochure describing how to implement non-lethal predator control measures will
be produced and distributed to rural Plumas County residents in anticipation of
a larger statewide program.
Human caused mortality and habitat loss will continue to present the
greatest hurdles to the conservation of mountain lions throughout the west.
California Department of Fish and Game biologist Steve Torres (2001) offered the
following recommendations for cougar conservation: 1) redefine mountain lion
management in a conservation biology context that recognizes their ecological
role; 2) manage for long-term viability of population systems that include
predator/prey relationships rather than single species; 3) establish population
monitoring and habitat models to define and maintain essential habitat; and 4)
manage for ecological systems at the regional, or metapopulation, level.
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 Federations and by generous
contributions from individual Mountain Lion Foundation donors.
Logan, K., and L.L. Sweanor. 2001. Desert Puma:
Evolutionary ecology and conservation of an enduring carnivore. Washington,
D.C.: Island Press
Terborgh, J, et al. 1999. The role of top carnivores
in regulating terrestrial ecosystems. In Continental Conservation, edited by
Soul and Terborgh, 39-64. Wash., D.C.: Island Press
Torres, S. and H. Keogh.
2001. Mountain lion management in western North America: A 100 year
retrospective. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Wildlife Society Conference, Reno,