By 1963 lions were dangerously scarce in California, and the bounty on them was lifted. For a while the Department of Fish and Game governed lion-hunting policy, during which time the cats were classified as a game animal. But in 1971, under pressure from environmental groups, the state legislature took control over the lions, reclassified them as protected nongame animals, and placed a moratorium on hunting them. Since then, the population of lions in the state has grown to somewhere around 5000, making: California’s lion population the most dense in the United Slates. Lion depredation incidents in California are also more frequent than anywhere else in the nation, having increased twentyfold between 1972 and 1984. The moratorium on hunting lions has been extended several times but is scheduled to be lifted in December of this year. What will happen to lions then is an issue over which animal protectionists and hunters are fighting in the legislature right now, with the Department of Fish and Game, as usual, caught somewhere in between.
San Diego County, because it is so dry, can’t support as dense a lion population as can some counties in northern California. On the other hand, because there is so much undeveloped and government-owned land in the county, there are plenty of lions here, and the evidence indicates their numbers are increasing rapidly. Although no accurate count exists, one measure of lion trends used by the Department of Fish and Game is the number of lions killed by motor vehicles on the state’s roads. During a 12-week period early this year, there were three lion road kills in San Diego County alone: one young lion was killed on Lyons Valley Road, north of Jamul; a second was killed at Camp Pendleton on Las Pulgas Road; and still another lion was killed in Oceanside on Rosicrucian Drive (this lion is being stuffed and will soon be on display at Torrey Pines State Park). Last year, in all of California, there were only 12 lion roadkills.
Another measure of lion populations is the number of confirmed lion depredation incidents. Between 1971 and 1984, San Diego County had 16 confirmed incidents, 9 of them occurring in the final 2 years of the documented period. In these same 13 years, Riverside County had 6 incidents, Orange County had 2, and Imperial County, none. Monterey County, which has long been the mountain lion center of the state, had 68 incidents during that same period.
The lion depredation incidents and sightings gathered by fish and game wardens in San Diego County give an indication of where the lions are and what their movements are. In September 1983, people at Warner’s Ranch reported seeing five lions crossing the road (although the Department of Fish and Game considers this report suspect); a month later a lion killed a domestic goat at a ranch near Julian; in November 1983, a dead lion cub was found on the road near Santa Ysabel. In January 1984, at the Christian Conference Center near Mount Palomar, a lion killed 20 goats. That same month, a lion was accidentally caught in, and later released from, a coyote trap near Mesa Grande. In April 1984, an adult lion was killed by a car near Lake Henshaw. This past June a lion was seen on the I-8 freeway on-ramp at Lake Jennings, and in a recently developed area of Chula Vista, residents periodically spot a lion patrolling what used to be his hunting territory. In Anza-Borrego the remains of bighorn sheep killed by lions are found from time to time.
Many incidents of livestock depredations are blamed on lions but remain unconfirmed. A rancher in Pine Valley claims a lion killed 30 of his pigs. A rancher near Warner Springs claims a lion killed one of his calves. In July 1983, the San Diego Wild Animal Park reported that a lion was killing antelope at the park and requested a permit to capture the lion, but when a Department of Fish and Game trapper examined one of the kills, he found it to be the work of a coyote, not a lion. The Department of Fish and Game says most reports of lion depredations are actually the work of large bobcats, coyotes, or wild dogs, while lions get blamed for the kills because it sounds more dramatic. The department emphasizes that a rancher must prove his livestock losses were caused by a lion before a depredation permit will be issued. Nevertheless, if a rancher without a permit kills a lion in the process of taking his livestock, no arrest is made if he turns the carcass over to the department and if his story seems to be a plausible one.
Some biologists claim the Department of Fish and Game’s estimate of 5000 lions in the state is meaningless, since it is based on available lion habitat, rather than on actual lion counts, which do not exist. To some degree, department biologists agree with this, saying their budget allows for little more than compiling records of dead lions and plotting them on a map. Without packs of dogs to tree the lions, researchers would rarely see one. But even the elusive lions leave tracks, and the most accurate population estimates are based on lion track counts. In the late summer, when dirt roads are dry and dusty, researchers walk selected logging and fire-access roads, looking for lion tracks. The tracks are traced on paper and measured, and individual lions are then identified. The Cleveland National Forest conducted lion track surveys in three of its districts between 1977 and 1981. In the Trabuco District, to the north of Camp Pendleton, four lions were found over a hundred-mile transect in 1977. By 1981, the same transect showed evidence of seven lions. In the Palomar District, four lions were found in 1978, and seven in 1981. A 64-mile transect in the Descanso District in 1981 showed evidence of three lions. And a hundred-mile transect at Camp Pendleton in 1981 showed three lions there. The Cleveland National Forest plans to continue its track counts next month.