By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER
Most foothill residents have heard the stories: Fifty-five sheep killed in one night. A cougar reported near a school. Pet dogs or cats mysteriously disappearing from front yards.
And, although no one is counting, mountain lion sightings even in residential areas are not unusual.
But lions have not attacked humans in either Tuolumne or Calaveras counties for decades.
In 1994, a puma killed a woman jogging in a state recreation area in El Dorado County.
Before that, however, it had been 85 years since any Californian died at the claws of a big cat. In 1911, a mother and child died of rabies they contracted after surviving a lion attack.
Still, a large cat attack is highly unlikely.
"I worry a heck of a lot more when I walk down Phoenix Lake Road to get my mail," said Jim Maddox, retired California Department of Fish and Game biologist. "People get obsessed with the worry that they might be carried away by a predator, yet they get in a car and drive to the supermarket, and that's where most accidents occur."
Cougars don't like to be seen, Maddox said, and in the 36 years he worked for the state, he only saw eight.
Mountain lions are more of a problem to pets and livestock than to people a situation that has earned goats and other animals the nickname "cougar candy."
But 4-H clubs, Future Farmers of America and a Sacramento conservation group have teamed up to try and bring lion casualties among barnyard animals down.
The program, Living with Lions, will be introduced at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp this year. Students will design mountain-lion-proof pens for goats, sheep, pigs and other livestock that frequently end up as cougar food, said Michelle Cullens, director of conservation programs with the Mountain Lion Foundation.
High schoolers gain experience working with computers and fencing, the Mountain Lion Foundation learns more about cougar habits in the area and both groups appreciate the end result fewer livestock killed and fewer mountain lions destroyed, Cullens said.