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Ten years ago when Buzz Johnson moved from Colorado to the 650 acres he owns on Angel Mountain, ten miles south of Mount Palomar, the property was so thick with manzanita and chamiso that a person couldn’t walk through it. So he bought a few dozen goats to eat the brush, and by the time they had eaten their way through 120 acres, the goats had increased in number to 580. Then about two years ago the goats began disappearing — sometimes two or three per night. The 73-year-old Johnson, who describes himself as “just an ornery old cowboy who says what he thinks,” knew exactly what the problem was. He buttonholed the local game warden, Carl Baumgarner, and said, “The goddamn lions are eatin’ all my goats up! I ain’t gonna feed two or three head a day to the goddamn lions just so the gov’ment can protect them! They go killin’ my stock, that’s when I’m gonna go killin’ them!”

There has been a moratorium on killing mountain lions in California since 1971, but the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) can issue depredation permits to ranchers who can prove they have lost livestock to lions. Johnson was able to convince Baumgarner that he had a lion problem, and a depredation permit was issued. The next night Johnson brought all his goats into a holding pen, then waited in the dark for the lion to come around. “The lion I shot that night must have weighed 200 pounds,” Johnson says. “I skinned it out and saved them [the DFG] the hide, but they said they wanted the whole animal. Said they wanted to ‘analyze’ it. So a few months later I shot them another one and dragged it out on a rock where it sat in the sun and bloated up real big. I called up the warden and said, ‘I got one o’ yer four-legged friends here if you wanna come analyze it.’ When they finally come out to look at it, it stunk so bad they wouldn’t put it in their van. Said they didn’t need to analyze it after all.”

Johnson continued to lose goats to the lions. He says he lost 30 or 40 goats before he finally sold them all and started running calves on his land. “Now the lions are eatin’ the calves,” he says with disgust. “They’ve run all the deer out of the country and now they’re turnin’ to livestock. I seen a lion three weeks ago Saturday night had a calf in its mouth — a month-old Hereford. The lion jumped I bet six feet in the air with that calf in its mouth. I went out next day to look at the tracks, and they were bigger’n my hand.”

California is the only Western state with a moratorium on mountain lion hunting, a ruling that to Buzz Johnson ranks second in stupidity only to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The way he sees it, the whole state is being infested with the varmints. “There’s a whole den of lions down on Prisoner Ridge [west of Lake Henshaw] somewhere,” he says. “It’s so brushy you won’t see ’em every day, but they’re there. I seen tracks, lotsa tracks! I don’t wanna get involved in politics, but I’d like to see lions opened up to hunting again so we can at least keep them under control. All these damn preservationists that want to protect the lions — why don’t they come up here and feed ’em? Better yet, why don’t they take ’em home with ’em? Better yet, why don’t they ship all the lions out to San Clemente Island? That’d solve their goat problems out there.”

* * *

Buzz Johnson is a holdover from that time in the American West when the mountain lion was considered to be nothing but a four-legged devil, to be shot on sight. Teddy Roosevelt, who liked to think of himself as a conservationist, once described the mountain lion as that “big horse-killing cat, destroyer of the deer and lord of stealthy murder, with a heart craven and cruel.” The President had probably been reading too many pocket Westerns when he said that, but the sentiment was typical of his time, and there are still plenty of ranchers who agree with him. Spike Alford, a rancher from Mesa Grande [south of Lake Henshaw] and past president of the San Diego County Cattlemen’s Association, says he has no doubt that the once-rare cats are making a comeback in San Diego County, particularly in the Mount Palomar area. “I was born and raised around here, and I never saw lion tracks except once in a great while. Now just about every time I go out I can find tracks. Lots of other people are saying the same thing. We had a lion out in the yard just the other night. We couldn’t see it, but we heard it screaming just like a big ol’ housecat. Our watchdog was tied up outside and he tore the screen off the window trying to get in. My sister-in-law up in Dyche Valley [south of Mount Palomar] lost a couple of goats out of her yard. They were dragged off in the brush and covered up with limbs and grass. A lion will cover up its kill after it eats on it, then it’ll come back the next night. A coyote won’t do that. Two years ago a fellow up on Palomar had some sheep inside a seven-foot-high fence. A lion jumped the fence, went in and killed three sheep, took one in its mouth, jumped back over the fence, sat outside, and ate it. The deer population has been short around here for the last ten years. Once the lions wiped out the deer, they had to eat something, so they started on domestic animals. Someday they might eat a little kid. I don’t think the lions should be exterminated, but I think we should thin them out some. There’s too damn many of them. If it gets to where the ranchers have to do something to get rid of some of them, I’m sure we’ll do it, with or without the state’s approval. We have to protect our livelihood.”

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