Ranchers, farmers fed up with mountain lion laws
By KEVIN HOWE
Herald Staff Writer
Updated: 07/09/2009 09:56:19 AM PDT
HOLLISTER — A revolt is brewing on the rangelands of San Benito and Monterey counties over state game laws that protect mountain lions.
Hunters, ranchers and farmers appear to be fed up with what they see as depredations on deer and livestock by an out-of-control mountain lion population. They are resentful of regulations they say were imposed on them by big-city voters who never saw one of the big cats outside of a television program or a zoo, and distrustful of state Department of Fish and Game enforcement. And they seem to be waging their own guerrilla warfare against the specially protected predators in the Gabilan range.
Wednesday, the San Benito County Fish and Game Advisory Commission held a public forum in Hollister on mountain lions. Officials from neighboring counties, state legislators' aides and mountain lion supporters attended to talk about the issue.
The state paid bounties for mountain lion kills from 1907 to 1963. The lions were classified as a game animal in 1969, and two sport seasons resulted in 118 mountain lion deaths.
The state Legislature imposed a moratorium on hunting the big cats in 1972, which was still in effect when Proposition 117, which prohibited lion hunting and declared them a specially protected species, was passed by voters in 1990.
Since then, the mountain lion population has grown and the deer population has declined, officials said.
Eric Loft, chief of Fish and Game's wildlife branch, said a decline in the deer population began in the 1960s throughout the western states because of habitat loss and other factors.
Predators — coyotes and mountain lions — play a part, said senior DFG wildlife biologist Terry Palmisano. Mountain lions make a deer kill once or twice a week, and they will turn to other animals if the deer begin to get scarce.
People may kill mountain lions if they pose an immediate threat to humans, pets or livestock, Palmisano said. Anyone who shoots a mountain lion is required by law to report it to Fish and Game within 24 hours and should be ready to defend his or her action.
"There will be questions," Palmisano said.
Depredation permits, good for 10 days, are issued by DFG to hunt lions that prey on livestock.
San Benito County has asked the state to survey the area's mountain lion population to determine what farmers and ranchers are dealing with, said Supervisor Anthony Botelho.
He said his constituents are seeing evidence of a greatly increased lion presence and worry about being prosecuted if they can't justify shooting a mountain lion on their property to an investigating game warden.
The result, Botelho said, is a tendency for ranchers to use the "three-S" principle: "shoot, shovel and shut up."
The state doesn't have the budget for a mountain lion count, Palmisano said, and if it was done, game officials couldn't do much.
"We can't have a hunting season," she said. "We don't really manage mountain lions. We try to manage people, to help make them aware of the lions."
Without reports, Loft said, Fish and Game can't get an accurate assessment of the lion problem.
"People don't report them because they're threatened with jail," said San Benito County rancher Nenette Corotto.
Jim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said that based on DFG statistics, there is no mountain lion problem. If landowners are breaking the law by shooting cougars and not reporting them, there can be no statistics that would show a problem.
The deer population decline, he said, is due to habitat loss, development and land management practices. The lions, Dunbar said, are "a self-regulating species" whose reproductive pattern keeps their numbers low. They are territorial, and the young cubs, once weaned, are driven out to find their own hunting ranges.
Livestock owners should put their animals in lion-proof enclosures to protect them, he said.
San Benito County resident Roger Miller said younger lions that are driven off "will go where they don't belong," into towns, ranches and farms.
Jerry Hunter, who sells hunting and fishing licenses in San Benito County, said he has seen a rising level of hunters frustrated with the DFG.
The county seems to have become a training ground for rookie game wardens, he said, who leave quickly for other areas.
Game Warden Chris Stoots said wardens don't stay in the county because of the cost of living and because of the difficult relationship with uncooperative residents "with closed gates and closed minds" who feel entitled to break the game laws.
"It's not a good county to work in," he said.
Trapper Paul Benoit said ranches that once teemed with deer have seen those herds disappear, along with gray fox, skunks and other animals, in a county where wide tracts of land have remained open.
"People in San Francisco and Los Angeles think the lions are cute and cuddly," he said. "They don't know the damage they do."
Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org