Peter Fimrite - San Francisco Chronicle - March 1, 2013
[This article appeared as 'When cougars and humans meet' in the San Francisco Chonicle on March 2nd; see above link for images]
A new state mountain lion policy that would give California wardens more options besides killing the animals was proposed Friday under pressure from legislators and residents who were outraged by several lethal encounters last year, including the shooting of two cubs.
The draft policy by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is the first state document focusing specifically on cougars. It creates a category for the lions, called "potential human conflict response," which gives wardens more discretion to use nonlethal methods. It also establishes a team of experts from around the state for wardens to consult when dealing with the predators.
"We have seen an increase in mountain lion encounters or sightings, and we expect to see future increases in mountain lion/human encounters," said Jordan Traverso, spokeswoman for the Department Fish and Wildlife, who blamed the increase primarily on human encroachment and habitat destruction. "This is more of a comprehensive policy that gives us more options and more access to expertise in these encounters."
Game wardens shot and killed two 13-pound cubs found under a deck in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 1, creating widespread outrage. It was the most controversial of several mountain lion shootings in which many people and conservation organizations felt the wayward pumas could have been relocated instead of killed.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced a bill on Jan. 25 that would require wardens to tranquilize and relocate mountain lions that wander into backyards or other human-populated areas unless they are an imminent threat.
The widespread anger and threat of legislation prompted Fish and Wildlife director Charlton "Chuck" Bonham to order a re-evaluation of the department's puma policies. The new policy establishes a "response guidance team" of experts to assist wardens with encounters. It also increases training and directs staff to look into how rehabilitation and relocation programs might work.
There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 cougars in the state, and they are protected under the 1990 California Wildlife Protection Act, which also limits the ability of wardens to tranquilize, relocate and rehabilitate the felines, Traverso said.
Experts say the shy, elusive cats usually avoid people. Since 1890, mountain lions have killed 21 people in North America. That's compared with an average of 16 people a year killed by pet dogs, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in 2000.
Still, the muscular felines do occasionally wander into civilization, which can be a terrifying experience for the person who encounters one.
A handful of cougars are killed every year by state game wardens and local law enforcement officers. Ranchers kill 100 to 200 a year using depredation permits, which allow the killing of predators that harass livestock.
Traverso said the new policy will allow only one puma to be killed per depredation permit. She said trappers killed four lions using a single permit on two occasions last year, infuriating wildlife advocates and generating even more criticism of the department.