Should mountain lions be protected as endangered? This spring the state's Fish and Game Commission is expected to decide whether the animals are to be protected under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
California Governor Gavin Newsom has been vocal in his passion for protecting the big cats, specifically the populations in Southern and Central California. But it's a contentious issue, as mountain lions in those areas of the state often kill livestock on ranches.
Kirk Wilbur is the vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen's Association.
Wilbur said mountain lions—also called cougars or pumas—have a significant effect on ranchers financially, and in general, ranchers don't want the big cats protected under the CESA. He said he hopes the commission takes that stance into consideration.
“Any particular ranch can have multiple [killings] by mountain lions,” Wilbur said. “I spoke to a woman in Riverside County last week who, in 2014 to 2016, had 22 livestock losses she believes due to two specific mountain lions.”
But this issue is personal to Newsome. Thirty years ago, his dad, William Newsom, backed Proposition 117. That law, passed by voters in 1990, ended sport hunting of cougars in California.
According to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee, around 100 lions are killed each year in connection with deaths of livestock. This is four times the number killed prior to the sport hunting ban.
While Prop 117 banned sport hunting mountain lions, a provision of the law created what's called the depredation permit system. That means people can get a permit to kill a cougar if they are able to prove the animal was in turn killing livestock.
“We believe that if they were to list the animal as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which would prohibit any take, that would be explicit conflicts with Prop. 117 that provides for that exact kind of take,” Wilbur said. “So we believe that it is actually illegal for them to do this under Proposition 117 as passed by the voters in 1990.”
Over the past decade, 96 depredation permits were granted in San Luis Obispo County alone—of those, 49 mountain lions were killed.
And environmental and conservation groups say the threat of extinction is so great—at least to the Central and Southern California mountain lion populations—that no more lions should be purposefully killed.
J.P. Rose is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Last June, the Center, in tandem with the Mountain Lion Foundation, submitted a petition to the State Fish and Game Commission to list the lions as endangered species. That would mean nobody could kill the animals, permit or no permit.
“They're being hemmed in by highways that have prevented them from maintaining genetic diversity, and they also are dying in car collisions and from super toxic rodenticides,” Rose said. “So we at the Center for Biological Diversity are asking the state to protect these iconic predators using the California Endangered Species Act. And we're really encouraged that state officials recently recommended that our petition move forward.”
Rose said there are non-lethal ways to deter mountain lions from preying on livestock, like loud radios, fencing and dogs. And that a three-strike policy was added to Prop 117 two years ago. It requires people to attempt three non-lethal measures before applying for a depredation permit.
“You know, we believe that killing mountain lions, especially imperiled mountain lions, to protect livestock is just not a good way to proceed, and inconsistent with the California Endangered Species Act,” Rose said.
Mountain lions are considered a keystone species, meaning they are critical to maintaining biodiversity in the state's ecosystems, and their disappearance would have a negative domino effect throughout the food chain.
“The loss of mountain lions in Southern California or the Central Coast could lead to degraded ecosystems and decreased biodiversity,” Rose said.
Recent survey suggests there's almost a one in four chance mountain lions in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains could become extinct within a decade.
The California Fish and Game Commission is expected to take up the issue at its April 15 and 16, 2020 meeting in Sacramento. The public will have the opportunity to submit comment.
KCBX's Greta Mart contributed to this report.