Mountain lion attacks raise questions about protection By JOEL HOOD December 23, 2002 They are the ghosts of California's wilderness. Mountain lions seemingly come and go without recognition, moving silently through the brush in search of food. Most casual hunters and day hikers can go years between mountain lion sightings, and even then it may only be for a brief moment. But as humans encroach on the mountain lion's habitat, the threat of confrontation increases. Two Turlock, Calif., residents found that out in November while hunting in the Diablo Range foothills of southwestern Stanislaus County. Russell Souza, 35, sustained a claw wound on his left elbow and scratches on his chest and shoulder before freeing himself from the lion. Souza then shot and killed the enraged animal before turning it over to Department of Fish and Game (DFG) officials for examination. Because Souza was acting in self-defense, the DFG did not charge him with poaching. But it's illegal to kill a mountain lion in almost every other circumstance in California, a law that makes some uneasy and others frustrated. Attacks on humans still might be rare, but DFG research suggests they are on the rise, prompting some to question whether California should continue its blanket protection of the state's top predator. "Like any resource, you have to manage them," says Craig Hueter, a Modesto, Calif., hunting outfitter. "The way it's going is a bad deal. And it's only going to get worse unless something is done about it." There always has been a romanticism associated with the mountain lion, due in no small part to its stealth behavior. But they haven't always been protected. The cats were hunted for bounty in California between 1900 and 1969, when records indicate fewer than 3,000 lived in the wild. A statewide moratorium was imposed in 1972 to increase their numbers. It worked, and by 1988 between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions roamed California's foothills. In 1990, California voters took it a step further and passed Proposition 117, a law that designated the mountain lion a "specially protected mammal," the only species in the state to receive that label. Lynn Sadler, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, an off-shoot of the organization that drafted Prop. 117, said the initiative was designed to protect the mountain lion's status as the top predator in the wild. "It's the keystone of the ecosystem," Sadler said. "Mountain lions do a good job of regulating their own population levels. But because (the DFG) has never really known what the levels are, combined with the fact that 100 percent of mountain lion hunting was for sport, there was a belief among voters that it needed protection." But Prop. 117 meant that mountain lions were afforded the same level of protection given to threatened or endangered species, which it was not. The designation also took away the DFG's power to manage mountain lions, as it does other animals that outgrow their shrinking habitat. Previously, the DFG could kill mountain lions to reduce the threat to sheep or deer, to keep resources plentiful or to limit contact with humans. No longer. With the protection of Prop. 117, mountain lions in California have been given a free pass, Hueter said. It would take an act of Congress to give power back to the DFG to control them, wildlife biologist and Ceres resident Holman King said. "The mountain lion can no longer be managed," King said. "All we can do is abide by the proposition, which is completely reactionary. We cannot take preventative measures when it comes to mountain lions. "It's strictly about politics. It's no longer under the constraints of biological law." According to the most recent DFG statistics, released in 1995, there have been 12 attacks on humans in California since 1890. Seven of those have occurred since 1992, not including Souza's frightening incident in November. Adult males may be more than eight feet long, from nose to end of tail, and weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. Adult females can be 7 feet long and weigh between 65 and 90 pounds. Dr. Pam Swift, the DFG veterinarian who examined the lion that attacked Souza, determined the animal was significantly underweight and probably attacked out of starvation. Swift's findings speak to the larger question of whether mountain lions in some regions have exhausted their resources and what effect that might have on the unfortunate hunter who wanders by. Chris Patin, the assistant chief of law enforcement in the DFG's San Joaquin Valley Region, said the DFG is in a tough situation. "The frustrating part is that (mountain lion) populations are dynamic, they're rapidly changing," Patin said. "The DFG's position is that they would like to have the ability to manage (them) at the appropriate time. As it is now, if a mountain lion possesses a specific threat, we can respond. But you have to know the mountain lion is there." Most western states, including Montana, Nevada and Colorado, allow hunting of mountain lions. Their respective fish and game departments regulate the hunts as it would deer, waterfowl or big game. That is a big reason why those states have been able to safely maintain their lion populations, said Chris Healy, the public information officer with Nevada Division of Wildlife. "We estimate there are about 4,000 mountain lions (in Nevada) and that number has stayed about the same even though we've always been allowed to hunt them," Healy said. "What we have discovered is that during the fall when yearlings are born, there is a substantial increase in lions in that area. What happens then is that they will take each other on. "If not for the harvest program we have, there is no question they would be more aggressive and more dangerous." Hueter said it's time to do what's best for hunters and mountain lions. "The problem is that in California their habitat is slowly disappearing," Hueter said. "The number of lions is going up while their acres are going down. Something has to be done to protect them and us. So many of those who voted (for Prop. 117) live in the city and never see mountains lions. "They don't understand the threat." E-mail Joel Hood at jhood(at)modbee.com.