California voters banned mountain lion hunting three decades ago, but the shooting never stopped

November 3, 2017 4:00 AM

Victoria Vaughn doesn’t have a killer’s heart.

The 59-year-old artist and former substitute teacher, whose eyes well with tears when she gets upset, loves animals. It’s why she started raising alpacas for wool for her weaving projects in the first place.

She certainly never thought she’d want to kill one of California’s most charismatic mammals.

That changed last year when a mountain lion started coming around at night, savaging her alpacas. Vaughn and her neighbors in the rugged mountains behind Malibu’s beaches blame this single lion for wiping out more than 100 goats, alpacas, sheep and other animals, sometimes dozens at a time. He rarely ate anything from their corpses, instead leaving them to rot in their pens.

Ryan Sabalow – The Sacramento Bee
Victoria Vaughn shows her alpacas a plaster casting of a paw print of P-45, a cougar that had killed her alpacas in Malibu last year.

After losing nine alpacas in one year, Vaughn and her husband installed motion lights, blasted talk radio over loudspeakers, and hung flags and electrified wires to try to keep the cat away at night. But on Thanksgiving weekend, the cougar once again got into her alpaca pen and massacred 10 more animals in a single night. One of the alpacas – a brown-wooled baby named Hope – was left dangling morbidly by its head from the pen’s wire fence.

Vaughn had had enough. She obtained a permit from the state of California allowing her to kill the lion. Hers was one of about 218 such “depredation permits” issued in California every year, though typically less than half result in a kill.

Californians voted to ban hunting of mountain lions back in 1990, but that hasn’t stopped scores of lions from being killed in the state every year through such permits, which are issued as a matter of course when a lion has attacked a domestic animal. Since Proposition 117 passed, an average of 98 mountain lions have been killed each year with depredation permits – nearly four times the average number of lions killed each year under such permits prior to the ballot measure, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state records. Experts caution that the higher numbers may reflect better record keeping and a larger lion population.

Last year, livestock owners and professional trappers, houndsmen and sharpshooters killed 120 mountain lions, including five each in El Dorado and Placer counties.

Biologists tracking the lion targeting Vaughn’s animals didn’t want him killed. The 150-pound cougar, known as P-45, had injected what biologists say is badly needed genetic diversity into an isolated population of a dozen or so lions hemmed in by two deadly freeways that he had somehow managed to cross. In doing so, P-45 had become something of a celebrity in Los Angeles. News that he was targeted for death outraged animal rights activists across the globe.

Killing P-45 probably wouldn’t solve the livestock owners’ problem anyway, biologists said. At least four other mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains had killed domestic animals that year, and they may have accounted for some of the attacks being blamed on P-45.

But the state had no say in whether P-45 would be allowed to live. That’s because a provision of Proposition 117 explicitly states that when an attack on pets or livestock is confirmed, the state “shall” issue a permit to a livestock owner upon request to “take” the offending cat. The state has always interpreted “take” to mean “kill.”

“The hard truth is that the state law lacks flexibility in these types of circumstances,” Charlton Bonham, the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a state board last year amid public backlash over its issuance of a kill permit for P-45. “At the end of the day, if someone asks us for one of these depredation permits ... we’re compelled, we’re required to provide it.”

Animal rights groups that championed Proposition 117 have been lobbying the state since the P-45 controversy to weaken the depredation permit provision.

An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions roam California. They aren’t considered endangered or threatened; state biologists say the overall population is stable. But scientists have discovered isolated pockets of cougars – like those in the Santa Monica Mountains – that are under severe threat due to inbreeding.

For now, P-45 is still living in those mountains. Vaughn didn’t end up shooting him, but one of her neighbors, former Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Wendell Phillips, did. The cat survived and his tracking collar shows he is still in the area.

Despite the 100 or so lions killed each year, Proposition 117’s backers say the initiative was a resounding success, one that animal welfare groups have used as a model for close to 40 successful statewide ballot measures targeting controversial hunting and livestock practices across the U.S.

“The core of Prop. 117 was not the depredation rules,” said Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States. “The core of 117 was ending the trophy hunting of mountain lions, where people were out to kill unoffending lions for their heads.

“Prop. 117 was a landmark measure in a lot of ways because it revitalized the animal protection movement’s use of this form of direct democracy in the United States.”

Pacelle said he believes there’s flexibility in the law that would allow the state to cut back on the number of permits it issues.

Winston Vickers – Irvine Ranch Conservancy
M-119, one just three mountain lions that have been confirmed to cross the deadly Interstate 15 freeway into the Santa Ana Mountains, walked past a motion-activated trail camera in 2015 in Orange County. This was one of the last pictures taken of M-119, so researchers believe he likely died.

He and other mountain lion activists want state wildlife officials to stop automatically interpreting “take” as kill, especially in cases where the lion preying on pets or livestock is part of a genetically fragile population like the one in Malibu.

They hope the state will require more of those who get depredation permits to use nonlethal means to scare the lions away, such as hazing them with hounds or slathering carcasses they leave behind with foul-tasting chemicals to prevent future kills.

Animal welfare activists say that over the years, the depredation-permit policy has morphed into something they never saw coming back in 1990, when the main concern was for commercial ranching.

“They didn’t know that a majority of these depredation permits would be issued for a handful of goats on ranchette properties. Frankly, there was no way for them to predict that,” said Lynn Cullens, the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

The meaning of ‘take’

After months of discussion with animal welfare and livestock groups, the state is poised to release a draft mountain lion depredation permit policy in the coming days that could provide greater flexibility and lead to fewer permits. Ranching groups say they will oppose any language limiting their ability to kill animals that attack livestock. If the state makes it harder to kill those cougars, they say it would violate Proposition 117 and make the Department of Fish and Wildlife vulnerable to lawsuits.

“We .... always have read the proposition to read that ‘take’ is considered to be lethal take,” said Justin Oldfield, a vice president of the California Cattlemen’s Association. “The department is, of course, obligated to issue that permit.”

Cullens said if her group is blocked it will move to persuade the Legislature to change the law voters approved.

It’s not an easy task – changing Proposition 117 requires a four-fifths vote in the Legislature – but it has been done before. In 2013, the Legislature tinkered with the law’s wording so it requires state game wardens to use nonlethal measures to shoo away mountain lions if the cats aren’t acting aggressively in “public safety” situations such as when people encounter them in neighborhoods, parks or along hiking trails. The original wording allowed for these cats to be instantly killed.

“I think we can do it. It may take some time,” Cullens said. “We have given up some impetus by not doing it closer to the time situation around P-45, when it was so much in the news. But eventually we’ll get to a place where there is greater discretion.”

Ranchers and their Republican allies in the Legislature aren’t as receptive this time around.

While Democrats outnumber Republicans in California’s statehouse, GOP lawmakers still hold enough seats to make a four-fifths vote a long shot. “I would be lobbying my members not to support that,” said Brian Dahle, a farmer from Lassen County who leads the Republicans in California’s Assembly.

The other option would be going back to the ballot to change the wording, but that’s a costly prospect.

Experts on ballot initiatives say that Proposition 117 should serve as a warning about the unintended consequences of voters enshrining hard-to-change measures into law.

“The Legislature is prevented ... from making rational and reasonable adjustments to the law when conditions change,” said Michael Salerno, an expert on the initiative process at the UC Hastings College of the Law. He called it a “perfect irony” that animal rights groups now find themselves stymied to protect lions from death by the very anti-hunting law they passed.

“It is a cautionary tale,” said Fredric Woocher, a Los Angeles attorney who has worked on ballot initiatives.

No sport hunting

The Sacramento Bee reviewed hundreds of depredation permits and wildlife incident report forms dating back to at least 2010 on file at the Department of Fish and Wildlife lab in Rancho Cordova, and also analyzed a database of historical depredation permit records kept by the state going back to the 1970s.

The Bee’s analysis shows that despite the ban on hunting mountain lions, California has recently issued around as many permits to kill them as it does permits to hunt pronghorn antelope, a native California species with a similar-sized statewide population that’s hunted in tightly regulated seasons.

But the numbers of cats killed under the depredation permit system is still lower than the hunting season proposed before Proposition 117’s passage.

Sport hunting for mountain lions hasn’t been allowed in California since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a moratorium in 1972. The moratorium followed a century in which lions – like wolves – were regarded mainly as a nuisance to ranchers. More than 12,400 mountain lions were killed between 1907 and 1963 and turned in for bounties, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation.

Mountain Lion Foundation
Hollywood celebrities, left to right: Rue McLanahan, Rob Lowe, Tippi Hendren, Earl Holliman and Gretchen Wyler, at the Mountain Lion Foundation’s news conference in 1988 to raise support for California mountain lion protection.

In the late 1980s, state officials had proposed reopening a hunting season allowing the hunting of 190 lions a year – a move that prompted the anti-hunting initiative.

Proposition 117’s advocates say that the numbers of mountain lions hunted in California could have been much higher than 190, since the state also would have continued issuing depredation permits.

In neighboring Oregon, hunters killed 268 cougars last year in the state’s lion hunting season – that’s on top of the 151 that were killed for preying on livestock. That state estimates its mountain lion population is slightly larger than California’s – around 6,400 animals.

The Bee’s analysis of permit data shows that two-thirds of the depredation permits since 1973 were issued for cougars that preyed on sheep and goats. Attacks on cattle accounted for just 10 percent; dogs and cats, 8 percent.

Only around 45 percent of the permits issued resulted in kills. State officials say most lions were killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program working on behalf of residents whose livestock had been attacked. The controversial agency employs professional trappers, houndsmen and sharpshooters who kill free of charge.

Mendocino County issued the most permits since 2000, followed by El Dorado, Calaveras and Tuolumne and Siskiyou.

The state’s records paint a grisly picture of lions stalking pets and livestock.

In 2016, a lion snatched a Yorkshire terrier while its owner was walking it on a leash at a Tuolomne County RV park. The owner tried to blast the lion with bear spray when it carried the dog into a tree, but the spray wouldn’t reach that high. The owner watched as the mountain lion began to eat his dog before it ran off with it in its jaws.

The warden asked the dog owner if he wanted a trapper to come kill the animal under a depredation permit, but the Yorkie’s owner declined. “He stated he did not want to harm the mountain lion in any way,” the warden wrote. In a few of the incident report forms reviewed by The Bee, livestock or pet owners declined to get a permit when state officials offered them one.

One Mariposa County woman whose two large sheep were killed by a lion last year said she didn’t want it to be killed. “She accepted the loss of her livestock as a risk of living in the mountains,” she told the warden who confirmed that attack.

‘I sleep with a shotgun’

Vicky Vaughan, a goat owner in Madera County, was not so sanguine. She obtained her second depredation permit in as many years in early 2016 after she found a dead goat inside a six-foot tall stall in her barn. The motion sensor lighting she installed to scare away lions didn’t work.

The cat never came back, so Vaughan (no relation to the Malibu alpaca owner with a similar name) didn’t use her permit. She had better success the year before. Back then, another lion was killing neighborhood animals at night.

She told The Bee she’d find her goats with “their throats just ripped out, laying there.” The trapper put one of Vaughan’s baby goats, alive, inside the trap to lure the cat in. A partition separated the lion from its prey. That night, they heard the trap’s door close and her husband went out and shot the lion.

She made the mistake of posting the picture of the dead lion on Facebook.

“I got butchered. I just got slammed. ‘How dare I kill a creature like this?’ ” she said. “But these people don’t know how you feel when you’re being stalked. You can feel it.”

When there’s a lion around, Vaughan said she’s now taken to sleeping in the barn. “I sleep with a shotgun,” she said, to protect the animals she considers part of her family.

In several of the reports reviewed by The Bee, cougars were killed after going on rampages inside livestock pens, similar to P-45’s Malibu massacres.

Workers at a winery in San Luis Obispo County in 2015 found 16 Barbados sheep and four Boer goats that a mountain lion had killed but not eaten. At the owners’ request, the warden issued a permit to kill it – and a federal trapper was called in. The dead cat, the warden wrote in his report, was “in excellent condition” and weighed about 105 pounds.

Such mass killings aren’t unusual.

“It’s not uncommon for us to hear a lion in a pen situation killing 15, 20, 30 goats in one evening,” said Marc Kenyon, the former supervisor of the DFW’s mountain lion conservation program who recently took a wildlife agency job in Wisconsin.

So what makes a cat go on these rampages? Is it really killing for sport, as some livestock owners claim?

Kenyon doesn’t think so. He said that mountain lions usually kill just one animal at a time in the wild, then drag it to a secluded area where they bury it, coming back later to feed. He said he thinks the cats need to let the adrenaline rush that comes from stalking and killing subside from their bodies before they can actually eat.

A lion can’t calm down in a pen packed full of prey. As the terrified animals run back and forth, the cougar’s killing instinct revs up and can’t shut off, he said. The cat goes from goat to goat until they’re all dead, or the lion is so exhausted it leaves.

“A lion, when it’s hunting, is really laser focused,” Kenyon said. “Nothing else is happening in the world except that prey item in front of them. We’ve got reports of people hitting a lion with a stick to get it off their dog on a leash, and the lion is not fazed by that at all because of that focus.”

When a lion is killed under a depredation permit, the carcass is taken to a state lab for an animal autopsy called a “necropsy” – another requirement under Proposition 117.

One day last summer, inside a DFW lab in Rancho Cordova, a group of four female biologists who call themselves the “Puma Pathology Queens” (female mountain lions are sometimes called “queens”) – were busily dissecting a cougar shot under a depredation permit.

Randy Pench – Sacramento Bee photos
Biologists with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, examine a young male mountain lion during a necropsy this summer in Rancho Cordova. State officials issue dozens of permits to kill mountain lions after they attack pets and livestock.
The biologists examine the mountain lion's teeth during the necropsy.
Biologist Jaime Rudd measures the mountain lion’s paw.

The Queens see their job as critically important, and one in which they’re emotionally invested. All of the Queens have shed tears at one point or another during a mountain lion necropsy, they say.

The cat on the Queens’ stainless steel table that day was a male still young enough to have traces of spots on his legs. At a little over a year old, he weighed an impressive 90 pounds. Healthy and sporting a long tail with the girth of a barrel of a baseball bat, the dead cat had preyed on an Oroville man’s goats a few weeks earlier. It had been shot in the head by a federal agent.

This cat was typical of those the Queens necropsy after a depredation case. They say the pumas that kill pets or livestock tend to be young males, and they’re usually healthy.

The cats are split open, and various organs and bodily fluids are sent to labs for testing and analysis. The contents of the lions’ stomach also are inspected to see if the cat had indeed been preying on livestock. This young lion had a gob of undigested goat meat and black goat hair inside it.

The hundreds of necropsies that have occurred in the 27 years since Proposition 117’s passage have provided scientists with important data about the overall health of California’s mountain lion population. For instance, analysis of the cats’ livers shows that 97 percent have traces of rodent poisons in their systems. Biologists believe they’re ingesting the toxins from eating poisoned rodents or from consuming animals such as bobcats and coyotes that have eaten them.

While not toxic enough to kill the lions most of the time, state officials are troubled. They fear the overuse of rodenticide could be dangerous for the population.

‘I still feel upset’

Animal rights activists say the data gleaned from these lion dissections is not enough to justify killing so many each year.

Cullens of the Mountain Lion Foundation estimates that in some areas of the state, including El Dorado County, more than a quarter of the local lion population might be killed via permits in a given year.

That, she said, is troubling enough, but most worrisome are the pumas being killed via permits in some isolated populations similar to Malibu’s. “We now have the evidence that there’s truly a problem here that we’re losing our biological diversity,” Cullens said.

Her claims are backed by a 13-year study published in the journal Plos One in 2015. The study tracked GPS-collared pumas in Southern California. On the west side of the Interstate 15 freeway in the Santa Ana Mountains, the animals are cut off from the larger population in much the same way the cats in Malibu are isolated by Highway 101 and Interstate 405.

Some of the westside cats are showing dangerous signs of inbreeding, such as kinked tails and other genetic problems. The fear is the lions could eventually go extinct from inbreeding.

During the study, the top cause of death for GPS-collared mountain lions was getting hit by cars, which accounted for 28 percent of the fatalities. The next highest cause of death, at 26 percent, was through depredation permits issued after the cats killed domestic animals.

Winston Vickers, the UC Davis wildlife veterinarian who lead the study, said that only three new cats are known to have crossed I-15 to bring new genetics to the westside population over the past 15 years.

One was killed before breeding under a depredation permit. Another dropped off researchers’ radar. Only one – a cat identified as M-86 – was confirmed to have bred before he was killed by a car, Vickers said.

Winston Vickers – UC Davis Wildlife Health Center
A motion-activated trail camera captured this image of a cougar watching over her shoulder as her two kittens feed on a deer carcass in 2014 in Orange County. All three cougars are the offspring of M-86, the only mountain lion known to have bred after successfully crossing the Interstate 15 freeway, bringing new genetics into a population of interbreeding cougars isolated by the deadly road.

Two of M-86’s 11 offspring died from gunfire. A third was illegally poisoned not far from where livestock had been attacked.

In Cullens’ view, most conflicts with lions over livestock could have been prevented if the animals’ owners had kept them in fully enclosed pens.

Her foundation is working with 4-H groups and backyard livestock enthusiasts to encourage those practices in mountain lion country. But she said her group lacks the resources to achieve significant change across California’s vast rural landscape through education and outreach alone. That’s why she feels it’s so important for the state to issue fewer permits.

After the P-45 controversy, the Mountain Lion Foundation paid to build Vaughn, the Malibu alpaca owner, mountain lion-proof pens for her alpacas.

She hasn’t had an attack since.

Vaughn said she’s extremely grateful to the Mountain Lion Foundation for its help during the controversy, because assistance was so hard to find elsewhere.

Some of her neighbors who owned livestock were upset when she eventually chose to rescind her depredation permit. But she didn’t kill P-45 because she felt he deserved to live. The blowback from the fans of P-45 was just too much. She said she received so many death threats from them, she hasn’t checked her voicemail for a year.

“I had people calling me and threatening me,” Vaughn said, breaking into tears. “This is the first time in my life I ever stood up for something and said ‘I’m willing to take the heat’ and I didn’t realize I would be so weak. I still feel upset about it.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow