California cougars: a conflict between man and beast
More than half of California is considered mountain lion territory, with some 5,000 of the big cats, also known as cougars, roaming free. Fast and powerful, they can leap 18 feet into a tree and take down a bull elk six times their weight.
They are solitary and elusive beasts. "Lions are among us constantly, and for the most part they stay out of trouble," said Marc Kenyon, who oversees mountain lion studies for the state Department of Fish and Game. "When people report to us they've seen a mountain lion and ask what they should do, I tell them they should consider themselves extremely lucky because seeing one is very rare."
Attacks on humans are extremely rare. But mountain lion attacks on pets and livestock are more common.
Since 2001, the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center has been tracking California cougars. "What we're looking at is: What decisions do they make time after time?" said Winston Vickers, a veterinarian and researcher on the project.
The study began as an effort to assess the impact of lions on endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep in the desert mountains of Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties. Over the years, the study's scope has expanded. The movements of collared cougars have shed light on health and disease issues, genetic patterns and the behavior of cats in the so-called wildland-urban interface, the Southern California regions that are neither rural nor urban. It is country where man and nature coexist uneasily.
Of 53 mountain lions that have been trapped, tranquilized and collared, 19 have been killed by vehicles or shot, far more than have died from natural causes. "The closer lions are to people, the more likely they're going to die," Vickers said. "Any interaction with humans, broadly speaking, will likely end up badly for the lion."
The extent of cougar attacks on domestic animals is difficult to determine. But one measure is the number of lions legally killed under depredation permits issued by state wildlife managers. In the year ending Sept. 30, 2009, 103 lions were killed by permit. Relocation is considered too risky.
Mountain lions have been killed for preying on livestock in California since the Spanish friars brought cattle to the missions. In 1907, the state Legislature approved a bounty for cougars. But the bounty was abolished in 1963, and in 1990 voters approved Proposition 117, which outlawed sport hunting of mountain lions and designated them a "specially protected species."
But they're far from endangered. It's estimated that the mountain lion population has doubled in California since the 1970s. Yet given that an adult cougar's territory can range more than 100 miles, the continued fragmentation of their habitat concerns researchers, who say it's inevitable that human conflicts with mountain lions will increase.
Read Mike Anton's vivid account in the Times of the life and death of a young cougar that took a wrong turn when, searching for food, he slaughtered the livestock of a rancher in San Diego County's Japatul Valley.
-- Margot RooseveltPhoto: Jaime Dyer, on the Dyers' San Diego County ranch, points to a photo of a young cougar who was lured into a cage by a government trapper after the animal attacked livestock.