There’s no simple solution for staving off hungry mountain lions in the Central Sierra foothills looking to dine on cattle, but area ranchers feel the latest preservation actions taken by the state make a dangerous problem even more challenging to address.
In response to a petition from environmental groups, the California Fish and Game Commission in April voted to advance mountain lion populations in Southern California and along the Central Coast to candidacy under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
The decision initiated a year-long review process to determine whether listing is appropriate.
In the meantime, pumas within the Endangered Species Unit (ESU) will be protected under CESA. That includes areas stretching from San Francisco in the north to the Mexico border in the south, and from I-5/I-15 in the east to the coast. Lions in these areas are presumably at greater risk due to freeways and other development disrupting habitat connectivity, along with rodenticide poisoning and state-sanctioned killing.
Around the same time period, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) revisited and tightened its enforcement of regulations governing animal owners who seek to kill a cougar after it attacks their livestock or pets.
State policy to manage and preserve mountain lion populations has varied greatly over the past century. The lions, deemed a bountied predator or game mammal for much of the 20th century, have been declared a specially protected species since 1991 via voter approval of Proposition 117.
Hunting mountain lions was effectively banned under that law, but exceptions were allowed in cases where lions attack, or “depredate” livestock or pets.
Whereas ranchers before had more leeway in obtaining what’s known as a depredation permit from DFW, they now have new steps to take before being permitted to make the kill.
For ranchers in the Western Sierra and other areas outside of the ESU, in particular, the department has adopted a new policy requiring two depredations to occur before issuing a lethal permit.
DFW said in a memorandum released in July that the department took a “fresh look” at how these permits are being issued, given “evolving scientific knowledge and recent events involving mountain lions in California.” The “recent events” were likely in reference to the attention surrounding the state-sanctioned January killing of P-56, one of two male radio-collared mountain lions living in a fragile habitat in the Santa Monica mountains that had been tracked by the National Park Service for decades.
The new “two-step” policy for obtaining a depredation permit is based on California Fish and Game Code Section 4801.5, which generally requires that non-lethal measures be used before a lethal permit can be issued.
When a mountain lion kill of livestock “was confirmed before, and it was requested by the owner that suffered the livestock loss, then we could issue a lethal permit right away,” said Eric Kleinfelter, DFW environmental scientist for Amador and Calaveras counties. “Now, when folks report an incident, and it’s confirmed to be a lion kill of livestock, then the first step is to request a non-lethal hazing depredation permit. It doesn’t allow for killing” off the bat.
For an example of non-lethal measures, ranchers can pursue lions with quads and dogs, but have to use rubber bullets, cracker shells or bean bag rounds as ammunition.
Precautionary measures include penning domesticated animals or livestock at night (the primary time mountain lions attack); installing motion-sensored lighting and using a loud radio to scare away pumas; and for large landowners, driving the perimeters of their property regularly to survey and ward off any hungry lions, Kleinfelter said.
Only after those kinds of measures are taken, and two separate depredations have occurred, can a rancher be issued a lethal permit.
The only exception for ranchers is to catch a lion in the act. When that happens, they’re free by law to make the kill right away.
How cattle ranchers are responding
The policy change has placed fourth-generation cattle rancher Walt Valente in a tough position.
Valente, who runs cattle in Angels Camp and San Andreas, said mountain lion attacks have been a common problem in the local ranching community for as long as he can remember.
He said he’s had at least three animals killed over the past three years to the jaws and claws of a lion, including a sheep a couple months ago.
Valente, a former federal trapper for the county, took issue with the new restrictions.
After a mountain lion kills once, “he will kill again. He’s going to come back until there isn’t anything left. I know that. I’ve experienced that,” Valente told the Enterprise Monday. “That’s our livelihood … they kill a calf, that’s $1,000 ... why do we have to sacrifice our safety and animals to feed a lion? It’s a lot of danger and cost.”
While Valente’s not advocating for “killing every lion in the country,” he said obtaining a lethal depredation permit should be simpler.
He’s concerned lions are a danger to people too, despite the significantly low number of attacks on humans over the last few decades.
“Some person is going to be killed by one of these lions,” Valente said. “That’s what we’re afraid of. They look at you as something to eat.”
Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs with the California Cattlemen’s Association said it’s been frustrating to see the move to a two-step permit, citing decades of understanding between ranchers and the department over the lethal take permit process.
He said compounding political pressure from environmental activists and Gov. Newsom, whose father worked for the Mountain Lion Foundation in the ’80s, likely played a role in the policy change.
“It’s the landowner and the livestock rancher that ends up bearing the burden of losing hundreds or thousands of dollars to their property that Prop 117 was intended to protect,” Wilbur said in a phone interview Tuesday.
That said, the policy change is not necessarily grounds for litigation at the moment for the Cattlemen’s Association.
“It’s perhaps met the letter of the law, but I think it’s against the spirit of Prop 117,” he said.
Western Sierra habitat suitable, but critical to protect
With plenty of open, undeveloped land – much of which is federally owned – lion populations in the Western Sierra have some of the most suitable habitat in California, leading state researchers say.
But it’s also the most critical habitat to protect, since dispersal from the region is the source of population growth for every other range in the state, according to DFW mountain lion researcher Justin Dellinger, Ph.D.
“We know that there’s connectivity issues across the state, and we know that the Western Sierra is, genetically speaking, the thing that’s holding it all together,” Dellinger said. “In an island, the Western Sierra is perfectly fine, but it’s critical for the survival of other populations.”
Mountain lions play an important role as the apex predator in the Western Sierra.
They can, to a degree, keep deer populations in check and effectively restore diverse vegetation to areas that deer would normally be foraging. Cougars also leave carcasses for scavengers.
For a number of reasons, habitat management for mountain lions is no simple task.
The dispersal-age males that play a vital role in populating other areas of the state (running the risk of being hit by a car crossing a freeway in doing so) also happen to be the ones most likely to be killed for depredation.
Furthermore, removing lions from the land is often just a “band-aid” on a deeper wound that calls for supplementary or alternative treatment – if a rancher lives in a travel corridor, cougars will likely keep coming back.
Effectively, depredations beget more depredations, and eventually exhaust the lion population.
Proactive, non-lethal measures are favorable from a management perspective, but not always cost-efficient.
Building enclosures to keep livestock in at night significantly reduces the chances of predation, as the risks of an attack are much lower during the day.
“If you’ve got 20 animals or less, chances are you just need a chain link enclosure with a solid roof,” Dellinger said.
That said, 70% of depredations occur on hobby farms that may not have the money to invest in enclosures, he said.
What about the health of mountain lions’ preferred food source?
Valente pointed to the decline in local deer populations as a potential amplifier for increased mountain lion predation of livestock in the county.
That said, the little data available doesn’t reliably support that there’s been an increase in attacks, let alone whether rebounding deer populations would reduce depredation.
The number of depredation permits issued in Calaveras County over the past nine years averages to about 12 per year, with no significant trends. Less than half of the total permits issued actually resulted in takes.
Additionally, a decrease in deer populations – influenced mostly by precipitation levels and habitat decline due to development or the absence of logging – would likely indicate mountain lion numbers are on the decline as well, since they don’t reproduce as fast as their main prey, according to Dellinger.
Any current estimate of the actual number of mountain lions in Calaveras County and the state, however, would likely be highly inaccurate, Dellinger said. A more accurate statewide and region-specific count is expected to be produced by 2022.
So, helping the deer population revive may not be the straightforward solution for curbing depredation that ranchers are hoping for.
Changes in the bear population can also have significant impacts on mountain lions, Dellinger said.
Bears’ reproduction increases when presented with forage opportunities, like access to acorns, berries and human food. When survivability increases for bears, it can spell trouble for mountain lions, since bears regularly steal kills from lions.
Perhaps ironically, one management priority for cougars and other wildlife Dellinger mentioned was preserving the kinds of open rangelands that have allowed lion populations to thrive in rural areas.
In a roundabout way, if ranchers stay in business, they can effectively preserve lion habitat by not selling their property away to a large developer.
In these cases, issuing lethal depredation permits may be “addition by subtraction.”
“If it’s a large cattle operation, the long-term viability of that operation means long-term habitat connectivity for wildlife in general. Then, yeah, it makes sense to have to remove an animal to keep that landowner in business and keep the land intact,” Dellinger said.
With 198,000 acres of rangelands in Calaveras County, the cattle industry yielded $7.8 million in revenues in 2018, the second highest commodity behind timber, per the 2018 crop report.
Mary Anne Garamendi, District 2 representative on the county fish and game commission said she understands the need for the county to preserve its open spaces to protect mountain lions and ranchers’ livelihoods, including through the use of conservation easements.
“We need to acknowledge that we have a lot of private open land and a lot of ranching communities in our particular areas and neighboring counties, and we need to try to keep our habitat managed correctly so we don’t have depredation of our livestock,” Garamendi said.
Ben Stopper, District 5 county supervisor and representative on the county fish and game commission said the recent developments around listing mountain lions as an endangered species in other parts of the state are “worrisome.” He said the state should “tread carefully” and not issue a blanket statewide order that would make acquiring lethal depredation permits even more difficult in the Western Sierra, where suitable habitat exists.
Such an order would be “tying the hands of our ranchers and cattlemen through the depredation process to protect their livestock and their livelihoods,” Stopper said.
For more information, or to report a mountain lion attack, call the DFW Rancho Cordova office at (916) 358-2917.
A former version of this article incorrectly quoted California Cattlemen's Association Vice President of Government Affairs Kirk Wilbur as saying ranchers could be losing “hundreds of thousands” of dollars due to depredation. A correction was made to indicate that Wilbur said "hundreds or thousands."