Pumas Would Get Protection from Law

January 25, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle

By Carolyn Jones
Chronicle Staff Writer

Mountain lions that wander into backyards or other human- populated areas would get a reprieve from state game wardens under a bill introduced Friday by a Peninsula state senator.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would require state Fish and Wildlife wardens to tranquilize and relocate errant pumas instead of killing them, as they did with a pair of 13-pound cubs found under a deck in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 1.

"That Half Moon Bay incident really prompted me to do something," Hill said Friday. "I kept thinking, how could this happen? Why did wardens shoot lion cubs the size of house cats? There's something wrong.

The bill would authorize the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to join forces with veterinarians, wildlife conservation groups and shelters to ensure a better fate for mountain lions when they mistakenly amble onto human turf.

The state's cougars are not endangered, but they are protected under the California Wildlife Protection Act approved by voters in 1990.

As the state's top predator, aside from humans, they provide a critical role in the food chain, affecting everything from deer populations to erosion and native plants, said Toby Cooper, chairman of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

The shy, elusive cats usually avoid people, but occasionally find themselves cornered or otherwise in the wrong place. It can be a terrifying situation for unsuspecting humans, who perceive them as a threat.

State game wardens and local law enforcement officers kill a handful each year. Ranchers legally kill 100 to 200 a year, usually for harassing goats or sheep, according to state officials.

New attention

That's not a huge dent in the overall mountain lion population in California, which hovers between 3,000 and 5,000, Cooper said. But it's enough to warrant closer attention to how humans view the muscular felines, especially as development continues to encroach on lion habitat, he said.

"What happened in Half Moon Bay is a wake-up call to every resident of California to start thinking differently about mountain lions," Cooper said.

Despite their perch at the top of the food chain, cougars are almost no threat to people, he said. Since 1890, mountain lions have killed 21 people in North America. That's compared with dozens killed annually by dogs.

Game wardens usually opt to shoot - instead of tranquilize and relocate - wayward pumas because the cats are so large and potentially dangerous, said department spokesman Mike Taugher.

"Dealing with mountain lions is an inexact science," he said, noting that the wily predators have been known to escape, return to the place where they're unwelcome or cause problems if relocated to another lion's territory. "The outcomes are unpredictable, and it's not an easy thing to manage. But we're trying."

Taugher said the department has embarked on a review of how it handles human-mountain lion interactions based in part on the Half Moon Bay incident. The results are expected in a few weeks, he said.

Easing fears

Wildlife rescue groups were thrilled at the chance to potentially work with the state on mountain lion issues. Scott Delucchi, the spokesman for the Peninsula Humane Society, said a partnership might help alleviate the misconceptions and fears expressed by many callers who think they've spotted a mountain lion and don't know what to do.

"We explain, it's like seeing a raccoon. What they're seeing is a wild animal being a wild animal," he said. "And sometimes it's not even a mountain lion. It's a bobcat or a golden retriever."

Puma education for everyone - from state game wardens to the public - is much needed, he said.

"If this bill can bring about collaboration and alternative ways to deal with mountain lions, then that's a positive thing," he said.

Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E- mail: carolynjones@sfchronicle.com