State lifts automatic death sentence for these mountain lions that prey on pets and livestock

Mountain lions living in genetically fragile populations in Southern California will no longer receive an automatic death sentence when they prey on pets and livestock.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said it was changing its policy for issuing permits to livestock owners in those areas who are seeking to kill mountain lions. Until now, the permits have been automatically issued if the cat has attacked domestic animals. From now on, the applicant must first try at least twice to shoo the cougar away with nonlethal means.

Although the new policy applies only to the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountain ranges, it represents a fundamental shift in how the state issues what are known as “depredation permits.” Animal rights groups hope the policy may someday expand statewide, a prospect fiercely opposed by cattle and sheep ranchers.

In 1990, voters approved a ballot initiative that prohibited hunting of mountain lions. To appease livestock groups, the initiative’s backers included language in the law that says the state “shall” issue a depredation permit in the event a cougar attacks pets or livestock. The wildlife agency has always issued lethal permits. California issues around 218 of them every year, though typically less than half result in a kill.

A Sacramento Bee investigation published this fall revealed that since Proposition 117 passed, nearly four times as many lions are killed on average each year than were killed prior to the ballot measure passing.

The state cougar-killing policy came under fire in late 2016 after it issued livestock owners in Malibu a permit to kill a mountain lion known as P-45. The cat was blamed for rampaging through neighborhood llama and goat pens at night, massacring several animals at a time and leaving their carcasses to rot.

Biologists didn’t want the 150-pound cougar killed, because he had injected what they said was badly needed genetic diversity into an isolated population of a dozen or so lions hemmed in by two deadly freeways.

By somehow crossing the freeway and joining the lions on this urban island, P-45 had achieved almost celebrity status in Los Angeles. News that he was targeted for death outraged animal rights activists across the globe. A former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, Wendell Phillips, shot the cat on his Malibu property, but it survived and its tracking collar shows he is still in the area.

In response, mountain lion advocates and biologists had pressured the wildlife agency to change its depredation permit policy in the Santa Monica range and in the Santa Ana Mountains, where cougars are similarly cut off from the outside and studies show the cats are dangerously interbreeding.

The fear is the lions in both ranges could eventually go extinct, and that people killing the cats when they attack livestock hastens the process. In the Santa Ana ranges, one 13-year study showed that more than a quarter of the cougars were killed from depredation permits.

“This amendment (to the state’s mountain lion policy) comes after many, many hours of discussion with stakeholders,” said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We believe we’ve struck a balance that takes into account the various attitudes regarding lions in the state, including the health of these sensitive populations.”

Lion advocates praised the state’s move.

“I think it’s a balanced and sensitive response to the conservation crisis in those two Southern California mountain ranges,” said Lynn Cullens, the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation. “We applaud CDFW director (Chartlon) Bonham for taking the time to carefully consider the options that were before them.”

Cullens said the best way to protect livestock from attack is by placing them in fully enclosed, lion-proofed pens at night. Cullens said she hopes the policy shift starts a process that will eventually lead to fewer kill-permits statewide.

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.

Now, almost all cougar kill permits are issued when the cats prey on pets owned by 4-H kids and other backyard livestock enthusiasts on the edge of suburbia who keep the animals as a hobby.

Livestock groups say it doesn’t matter whether someone is making a living off the animals the cougars kill – the ballot initiative language for depredation permits makes no exceptions.

Phillips, who is now an attorney, said the state’s new policy is “easily challengeable in court.”

“I think they’re bowing to political pressure, and it’s too bad,” he said. “But the reality is nobody will bother to apply for permits any more. Shoot, shovel and shut-up, that’s what coming.”