“There’s a whole den of lions down on Prisoner Ridge [west of Lake Henshaw] somewhere.” (The lion in this photograph is owned by Bob Farner of Vista.)
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 chamise 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!”
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
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.”
Bill Tulloch, a rancher from the Ramona area, says he’s lost at least three calves to lions in the past year. He hasn’t asked for a depredation permit because he doesn’t think it would do any good. “This country’s pretty brushy, and lions move around a lot. It’d be out of the ordinary to see one just standing there in the open, waiting for you to shoot it. I do think there’s enough lions that they should become a game animal again and let hunters have a chance at getting one. I’d hate to see every one of them killed off, and I think most ranchers would agree with me. But this cattle business isn’t so good that I can afford to feed my family and the lions, too. If the lion problem around here gets bad enough, ranchers are going to take it in their own hands.”
Yet most ranchers nowadays seem to have mixed feelings about the cats, hating them for what they can do to their livestock but admiring them as a symbol of a lost era. Willie Tellam, who runs cattle on 26,000 acres near San Pasqual, says, “You hear all these goddamned mountain lion stories, but I don’t know. Once in a while, a cow will show up without her calf, and we don’t know what happened to it. It would be taking unfair advantage of the lion to say he got it; it could have been a lot of things. But lions are out there. The last one I saw was on October 10. We were out deer hunting, and the east wind was blowing. I came around the corner of the road, and there it was, standing right there, an immense cat. It made the hair stand up on my arms. I don’t know why, there’s just something about seeing a lion. It was a beautiful animal, just beautiful. If I was out riding today and saw a lion, I’d probably sit there a long time deciding whether to shoot it or let it go. By the time I decided, the lion would be gone. But if I caught it killing my calves, I’d shoot it in a second.”
Felis concolor has been known by so many different names — mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, catamount — that many people are unaware these are all the same animal. It is a secretive, nocturnal beast, so distrustful of even its own kind that, except for fighting and mating, it spends most of its life in solitude. It is extremely territorial: when a transient male invades another lion’s territory, the result is often a fight to the death, after which the victor does not hesitate to devour the weaker cat. Practically all males bear battle scars. The lions are exceptionally wary of humans; people who spend their entire lives in lion country rarely get a glimpse of one. Says Willie Tellam, “I’ve lived here 53 years, I’m out riding all the time, and I’ve seen three lions in my life. Of course, I see their tracks every day.” Bill Tulloch, who has seen only one lion in the last 35 years, agrees. And Spike Alford, who has been out in the brush all his life, saw his first lion only a decade ago.
In the United States, mountain lions once extended from California to Florida. Today in this country, there are no lions at all east of the Rockies, with the exception of a small remnant population in Florida. They have been known to inhabit mountains, deserts, jungle, and prairie, but in San Diego County they prefer the rocky or brush-covered land that provides good camouflage for their ambush style of hunting. They may grow to weigh as much as 160 pounds, and wild exaggerations of larger cats are common, perhaps because the sight of a cat nearly as large as an average-size man has a way of distorting one’s perception.
Mountain lions almost always coexist with deer, which are their favorite prey. An adult lion will take about 50 deer per year. Some biologists say this has no effect on a healthy deer herd, that lions and deer have been coevolving for thousands of years, and that this predatory relationship benefits both animals. Other biologists contend that if the lions are too densely populated, they can decimate a deer herd. They are superbly designed for killing large prey; their powerful jaws can crush a deer’s skull, and their claws are curved in such a way that the harder the prey struggles, the more they curl in deeper. Lions will also eat smaller prey such as rabbits, squirrels, birds, and other predators, but they will not eat spoiled meat. During warm weather they will seek fresh meat rather than eat from an old carcass. They seem to relish killing for killing’s sake — a lion in Placer County once killed 45 sheep in one night, then didn’t eat from any of them.
Lions prefer a large territory, one that might range somewhere between ten and 100 square miles per lion, depending on the number of deer the land can support. The lions’ solitary habits benefit them in some ways — they rarely transmit parasites and disease to each other — but because their individual territories are so extensive, a very large, contiguous body of land is necessary to support a healthy lion population. In the San Diego area, habitat destruction caused by overdevelopment is undoubtedly their greatest threat today.
Man has never gotten along very well with mountain lions. Though they usually go to great extremes to avoid people, there are 12 documented deaths caused by lions (all children under 12) in the United States and Canada in this century. There exist more documented cases of lion attacks, including a boy seriously injured by a mountain lion in British Columbia this past May.
In early California the mission padres frequently complained of lions stealing their livestock and offered a bounty of one bull for every lion killed. From 1907 until 1963, there was a bounty on lions in California, which began at $20 per lion and gradually increased to $60. During those 56 years, bounty hunters and professional lion hunters hired by the state killed 12,500 lions. Ranchers and other hunters who didn’t bother to collect the bounty may have killed two to three times that number. The purpose of the bounty was both to control livestock depredations and also to protect deer populations, which were thought to be in jeopardy. By the mid-’40s, with lion populations drastically reduced, the deer populations in some parts of California had increased to such a degree that herds were starving, and professional hunters were hired to slaughter them.
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.
There are two bills before the state legislature concerning mountain lions: SB 76 would extend the current moratorium on hunting the lions and is supported by a coalition of animal preservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. The other bill, AB 947, would return mountain lions to the status of game animals and allow for controlled hunting; this bill is supported by sport-hunting groups.
Robert Fusco, an engineer for the Department of Defense in San Diego and president of the California Wildlife Federation (a coalition of hunting and fishing clubs that has about 100,000 affiliated members statewide and approximately 6500 members in San Diego County), credits the Wildlife Federation with the basic construction of AB 947. According to the proposed bill, the Department of Fish and Game would determine — on the basis of its own area studies — which lion populations can support hunting. “For example, if the Palomar District of Cleveland National Forest showed there was a surplus of three male lions, the department could issue three tags for the taking of three male lions. It is not an open hunting bill.”
Fusco says that the Wildlife Federation’s philosophy is, if there is a renewable resource such as a game animal, there is no reason why the resource should not be used. But he also says a desire to hunt lions is not the federation’s primary motive. “There must be some members who would like to hunt lions, but many more have said they have no desire to ever hunt one because it’s a pretty expensive proposition — you need a pack of dogs to really do it right. We felt that California needed a lion conservation plan and that the moratorium was not going to work, that there are more lions attacking livestock than ever before, and more importantly, that high lion populations are holding deer herds below reasonable levels.” Fusco cites studies done in the Sierra National Forest that indicate that mountain lions are responsible for killing 30–40 percent of newly born fawns. He says, “We believe hunting should be used as a management tool to control the lion population.”
Fusco says he has little faith in the Department of Fish and Game’s ability to deal with the lion problem. “The trouble with the DFG is that they’ve been politically hamstrung.” Because of the Wildlife Federation’s lack of faith in the department, the federation has donated funds to finance independent studies of lion populations, some of which will be conducted in San Diego County. One biologist who has received their donations is Lee Fitzhugh from UC Davis. He believes it is possible that lion populations in Southern California have become genetically isolated by freeways and urban development. The lions in the Santa Ana Mountains that terminate on Camp Pendleton, for example, are probably isolated from other lion groupings. If that is true, Fitzhugh suggests that the most effective way to manage the problem would be to remove resident male lions periodically through sport hunting and then replace them with male lions from other areas. Fitzhugh also believes it is possible that lion populations are unnaturally high because the lions, after depleting the deer herds, survive by killing domestic animals — in other words, the natural checks and balances on mountain lions are not in effect.
Marie Savino, a writer and teacher’s aide, is one of the most active animal preservationists in the San Diego area. She has been president of the Animal Rights Coalition and is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Hunters always try to appear to be concerned about the lion and the deer, but that’s not really it,” she says. “They’ve been waiting for lion hunting to open up again so they can go kill one. For a hunter’s prestige, one lion is worth 20 deer. We want the moratorium on lion hunting continued through 1990. We understand there has to be some compromise when it comes to ranchers. We believe it would be acceptable for a rancher to kill a mountain lion if he could prove it was taking his animals. But there is no reason why mountain lions should be opened to hunting. We are afraid the situation will go right back to where it was in the 1970s when mountain lions were extremely rare. If lion trophy hunting is reopened, that’s exactly what will happen. There are more hunters than the DFG can control.”
If studies show that lion populations are too high in San Diego County, Savino says, “First we would want our own study done to see if we get the same results. We don’t like listening to the Department of Fish and Game studies because they have a lot of hunters on their commission, and they’re hunter-supported. If the deer population is low, is that really caused by the predators or by the thousands and thousands of hunters?” Savino would also investigate the possibility of a lion transfer program, taking lions from one area and moving them to another. Though this would be extremely expensive, Savino says, “Cost has nothing to do with it. Animal rights groups can afford it. We got the goats off San Clemente. We’d like to see the DFG get off their asses and do something for the wild animals they’re supposedly protecting, but they won’t because of the hunting lobby. So it will probably be up to animal-rights groups to move the animals.”
Besides being expensive, though, relocating lions has been shown to be ineffective. Lions will not remain in the area they are placed, or they will fight the resident lion, often to the death.
“If the lion population proved to be abnormally high,” Savino says, “then it would be time to talk about a compromise — possibly keeping the moratorium but allowing the DFG to thin the population. But no trophy hunting. Hunters try to make a macho game out of killing something. But it’s not a game; it’s trying to put a balance back in nature.
“Right now, in San Diego, the mountain lion is a legislative issue,” Savino says. “It’s a letter-writing campaign. But if the moratorium is lifted, then it absolutely will become a protest issue. The hunting lobby is so big, they’re probably going to win. In that case, we will take more radical action.”
Governor Deukmejian has said he will veto any bill that extends the moratorium on lion hunting in California. The animal protectionists are said to be rewriting their bill to avoid the veto. Whatever the outcome might be, it is certain that lions have benefited from all the public attention. Lion populations in San Diego County will be more closely monitored than ever before. Ranchers will retain the right to protect their livestock, but if enough undeveloped lion habitat can be preserved, mountain lions will continue to thrive under a level of protection which they haven’t known for most of the 20th Century.
Update: According to the California Department of Fish and Game’s website, between 2001 and 2008 there have several hundred mountain lion sightings per year. Fewer than three percent have resulted in an animal being identified as an imminent threat to public safety and killed. In 1990, California Proposition 117 made permanent the ban on mountain lion trophy hunting.