The capture of a young mountain lion this weekend in east Sacramento was good news, and not just because it’s unsettling to have wild animals roaming in and out of residential backyards.
Until this year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had only two choices when a cougar wandered into habitat occupied by humans. Wardens could either scare the big cat back into the wilderness, or kill it.
Though fewer than 6,000 mountain lions are left in California, the expedient option became such a fallback that it was rare for one to survive a wrong turn into human territory.
In late 2012, however, that changed as the result of the controversial death of two orphaned cubs in San Mateo County. Cowering under a porch in Half Moon Bay, no bigger than a pair of house cats, the starving baby lions were too weak and afraid to move when wardens made an attempt to shoo them.
So they were shot. The resulting public heartsickness – shared, by the way, by wildlife officers who had had no choice because of the policies that existed – prompted state Sen. Jerry Hill to introduce legislation to require a third, more humane option. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 132 into law last year.
Now, unless a mountain lion behaves so aggressively that it poses a dire threat to public safety, wardens must use nonlethal means to catch and subdue it.
That’s how the east Sac cougar ended up surviving on Saturday night after it was cornered between a cactus and a stack of tomato cages in a fenced backyard.
That survival is progress. Mountain lions can and do pose a threat to pets and livestock, and ranchers revile them. But those encounters are rural, and depredation permits are available for them.
Far more necessary is a sensible approach for the urban run-ins that increasingly have become a fact of life in California. No other state has so many wild animals and so many humans in such close proximity to each other, or so many wildlife corridors running in and out of big cities.
Public safety here is constantly coming up against the need to balance ecological systems, which fall apart without healthy predator populations. Finding a middle ground requires an understanding of more than one species and a respect for the full range of life.
Tim Dunbar, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Lion Foundation, says the adolescent cat probably was searching for unmarked territory to inhabit, and had wandered away from the American River Parkway.
Clearly he knew he was in the wrong place; after reports the previous night had set off a police search, the mountain lion had lain low. That reticence, Fuller says, probably saved the animal’s life.
Rather than instinctively shooting it, Sacramento police waited for a Fish and Wildlife warden. Then they tranquilized, blindfolded and carried the cat away to wildlands east of Sacramento, where it was released.
It was a far happier ending than that of the Half Moon Bay kittens, and one that policymakers and public safety officials can be proud of. At the moment, Fuller says, California is alone in requiring such humane treatment for mountain lions that end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Here’s hoping that this weekend’s good-news ending inspires other states.