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State investigating claims of illegal killing of mountain lions at Tejon Ranch

May 13, 2011 | 12:19 pm

Lion The California Department of Fish and Game is investigating claims made in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former Tejon Ranch employee who alleges that he was fired after he complained about the illegal killing of mountain lions at the company’s direction.

“There appears to be legitimate cause for an investigation, which has begun,” said Patrick Foy, a spokesman for Fish and Game.

Bron Sanders, a former hunting guide at the ranch, made the claims in a recent lawsuit filed in Kern County Superior Court.  Sanders worked at the ranch from 2004 until December of last year, when he alleges he was wrongfully terminated for complaining to ranch managers and top executives about illegal hunting of mountain lions on the grounds. 

Tejon Ranch officials denied the allegations.

“We learned of Mr. Sanders' allegations only after he became aware that he was being terminated for cause,” said Tejon Ranch spokesman Barry Zoeller. “After learning of the allegations, we conducted a thorough investigation internally and had all parties interviewed by outside counsel. Based on that investigation and those interviews, we determined that the allegations were ridiculous and untrue.”

He added: "We intend to vigorously defend our actions in court."

Over the past five years, Sanders said in an interview Friday, he personally witnessed “20 mountain lions dead on the ground without a depredation permit.” The exact figure Sanders cites is not noted in his lawsuit.

Each state-issued permit restricts the killing of one big cat that poses a threat to humans or livestock. Under state law, a mountain lion killed under the auspices of a depredation permit must be presented to the state Department of Fish and Game within 24 hours.

In July 2005, Sanders said, he killed a mountain lion on the 270,000-acre ranch north of Los Angeles, believing he satisfied the permit requirements.

But when he called in to report the kill, Sanders said the manager of the ranch’s hunting operations told him “don’t call anyone about this, and do not turn that carcass in,” an incident mentioned in the lawsuit.

Sanders said he did not turn the carcass in to state authorities, adding “we got two or three mountain lions off that one permit.” The exact figures he cites are not noted in the lawsuit.


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-- Louis Sahagun in Kern County

Photo: Mountain lion. Credit: Stephen Lea