Quelling Conflicts with Cougars

As more people move into California cougar habitat they find themselves conflicting with the big cats, and in these confrontations the cats usually lose

08-01-2005 // Sharon Levy

BIOLOGISTS BEGAN TRACKING cougars in 2001 in and around Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which lies on the edge of spreading human settlement in eastern San Diego County, one of California’s fastest growing areas. Before a fire burned much of the park and forced its temporary closure in October 2003, more than 500,000 hikers, bikers and campers visited each year, and a growing number of homes fringe the park.

One of the first cougars (also called mountain lions or pumas) the researchers radio-collared was a male cub, dubbed M3, that was traveling with his mother, F4. After F4 killed two domestic sheep in the small town of Descanso, south of Cuyamaca, the owner asked for a state depredation permit, commonly given to ranchers who lose livestock to predators. The mother mountain lion was shot when she returned looking for more easy prey, leaving M3 to fend for himself.

“Females will leave their young at a certain location while they go off and make a kill,” says the director of the study, Walter Boyce of the University of California–Davis Wildlife Health Center. “M3 spent several days hanging out where his mother had left him, probably waiting for her to come back and trying to figure out what to do. He’s young and inexperienced, partially trained by his mom that domestic animals are okay to eat, so things could only get worse.” Within two weeks, M3 had killed domestic goats and geese on three separate occasions and was shot under a depredation permit.

As more and more Californians build homes in or near mountain lion habitat and spend time hiking and biking there, contact with the big cats, though rare, is becoming more frequent and—even more rarely—dangerous. Twelve of the 15 documented mountain lion attacks on people in California since 1890 have occurred in the past 20 years. Although attacks in other parts of the West remain few and far between, last year alone, three people were attacked by mountain lions on public lands in California, and one victim died. Nevertheless, brushes with humans are far more likely to be fatal to the cats than to the people.

“When we started the study in 2001, we were trying to learn as much as we could to help people and to help the pumas,” Boyce says. “After a while, we began to feel we were just documenting the ways that lions can die. Too many of the mountain lions ended up being shot after they’d preyed on domestic animals, or getting hit by a car.” The life spans of big cats here seem unusually brief compared to those of pumas in more remote areas—many of the animals tracked in the study died within a year or two.

Boyce and his colleagues in 2003 found that at least eight adult pumas live in Cuyamaca, inhabiting home ranges that vary from about 30 to 380 square miles. The cats appear to do their best to avoid human contact. During the day, they bed down as far as they can from roads, trails and other areas that draw people. From dusk to dawn, their prime hunting time, the lions are on the move outside the park into new suburban developments, where they run into trouble.

California once offered a bounty on mountain lions, actively encouraging their destruction. The bounty era ended in 1963. California cougars have not been hunted for sport since the early 1970s, but 1,258 were killed under depredation permits in the ten years ending in 2004, compared to only 93 in the decade ending in 1982.

“The state’s depredation policy was crafted over 30 years ago and was meant to protect property owners that were making a living off free-ranging livestock,” explains Steve Torres, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. In the sparsely inhabited country where most ranchers operate, mountain lions are unlikely to suffer significant losses under depredation permits. “That changes when you apply the same policy to [pets and hobby livestock killed by pumas] in urban settings, where mountain lion populations are already stressed from habitat loss and being hit by cars.”

Boyce found that the biggest single cause of death was shooting by landowners protecting domestic animals, ranging from cats and dogs to goats and alpacas. “The win-win situation,” Boyce says, “is for people to keep their animals safe from mountain lions.” Livestock need a roofed, predator-proof enclosure. A fence alone—even one 8 feet high—will not keep out lions. But simply keeping dogs and cats inside at night, when the lions hunt, is an easy way to protect them.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the people who live, work and play in mountain lion habitat to decide if they want to share the environment with an animal that can kill them,” Boyce says. “But there are many things each of us can do to avoid conflict between mountain lions, people and domestic animals.”

California still holds large tracts of wild public land where pumas can roam with little chance of encountering humans or their pets, so the state’s mountain lion population remains healthy. In some areas, the big cats pose a threat to endangered populations of bighorn sheep. However, both Torres and Boyce believe that the high mortality of lions in places like Cuyamaca should be seen as a warning. Humans are living and playing in more and more of the state’s open lands, and eventually some wildlife strongholds may become danger zones for mountain lions and the ecosystems they represent.

“In the West, we still have a viable predator-prey system, and people don’t realize how special that is,” says Torres. “Deer in the eastern U.S. have become a pest species, because there are no large predators to limit their numbers. The relationship between lions and their prey is part of our heritage, and to me it’s what makes wild country so beautiful.”

Sharon Levy lives in northern California, where she has glimpsed wild cougars.

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