Cougar bill rankles rural counties

By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat April 18, 2013 11:47 am

A bill making its way through the state Legislature would require the California Fish and Wildlife Department to use nonlethal methods when dealing with problem mountain lions.

Under the bill, Fish and Wildlife wardens would be required to attempt nonlethal means to remove a mountain lion perceived as a threat to public health or safety. Such means could include capturing, pursuing, anesthetizing, marking, monitoring, relocating, hazing, re-releasing and other options, according to the bill.

The animal could be killed if it “can reasonably be expected to cause immediate death or physical harm,” according to the bill.

Tuolumne County’s Board of Supervisors criticized the proposal, known as SB 132, this week, saying it could be problematic for rural communities where the big cats are a native species. The bill will be heard next week by the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

“The potential for unintended consequences, especially for foothill rural counties, is huge,” said Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who said the region has “enough of a mountain lion issue without having mountain lions relocated.”

Board Chairman Randy Hanvelt called the bill’s authors, who include sponsor State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, “well-meaning people with inappropriate advice.”

The California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990 declared the mountain lion a protected species that can only be killed if they threaten people or domestic animals. The state issues special permits for that reason, though permittees only have a limited amount of time and space wherein they can kill the animal.

Fish and Wildlife wardens now have more discretion in managing mountain lions that wander from wilderness areas into places populated by people. It is not uncommon for those animals to be killed.

An incident in December that involved two cubs killed in Half Moon Bay drew public criticism and inspired the bill.

State Fish and Game did release a draft of new policies last month encouraging nonlethal measures, but SB 132 could strengthen the requirements.

A spokesman with the department said in an email Wednesday that Fish and Wildlife cannot comment on how the bill could affect policies.

The proposal has strong support among wildlife-protection groups, with the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation petitioning to back the legislation. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the California Sierra Club also back the bill.

The bill “reflects those values and will help to ensure that mountain lions remain in the wild for future generations to appreciate,” Mountain Lion Foundation director Tim 

Dunbar said when the bill was proposed earlier this year.

According to Fish and Wildlife, there have been 13 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in the state since 1986 — only three of them fatal. Only one, a fatal attack on a woman near Auburn, occurred in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The state agency estimates between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions live in California, though sightings of the stealthy cats are relatively rare. Fish and Wildlife receives hundreds of reports every year of mountain lion activity, though only a handful are deemed safety issues and killed.