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News: 09/15/2018

Gorin urges collaboration to address mountain lion conflicts

After receiving an outpouring of emails from people saddened over the killing of a young female mountain lion under a depredation permit in Kenwood, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin is urging collaboration between the agriculture community and the preservation community.

P6, a 16-month-old female mountain lion and one of seven mountain lions collared and being tracked as part of the Living with Lions research study based out of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s (ACR) Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, was killed under a depredation permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) after it killed a goat. While the hunting of mountain lions for sport is illegal in California – one of the few states to adopt such protections in 1990 – a mountain lion may still be killed under a depredation permit if it kills a pet, livestock, or is an imminent public safety threat.

Last month, Gorin met with Dr. Quinton Martins, the wildlife ecologist heading up ACR’s Living with Lions study, and Sharon Ponsford, Gorin’s recent appointee to Sonoma County’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. An Oakmont resident, Ponsford has written a Living With Wildlife column for this paper.

Ponsford said Gorin encouraged her and Martins to reach out to the agriculture community and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau to figure out how to strengthen the education around protecting livestock from big predators like mountain lions.

“She suggested it wouldn’t be easy, but the door was open just a little bit. Any time a politician contacts you, the door is open,” said Ponsford.

“I know it’s difficult. We are an ag community and we want to support our farmers,” said Gorin during a later interview. “Lets get the facts before considering policy changes.”

Current depredation permit policy

The policy change in question revolves around the policy of depredation permits themselves – issued by CDFW – and the county’s role in carrying those depredation permits out.

CDFW issues depredation permits, but is not responsible for the actual trapping and killing of a lion. In Sonoma County, that responsibility falls to the person who requested the permit, or they can contact the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures, who will send out a wildlife specialist to do it for them.

“This is where a county has a higher degree of influence on whether a mountain lion is successfully killed under a depredation permit than most people realize,” said Lynn Cullens, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, based in Sacramento. There is no law that requires the county to help execute these permits, so citizens should have a say as to whether they want the county to provide such a service, said Cullens. In many cases, it costs many thousands of dollars in time and resources to trap and kill a lion.

“The point isn’t who actually pays for someone to come out and kill a lion,” said Martins, “the point is it has been issued and you’re allowed to kill it.” Martins has been pushing CDFW to take proactive measures and be more conservative when it comes to issuing depredation permits for the Sonoma Valley mountain lion population, which he contends is very small, akin to the genetically isolated mountain lion populations in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains of Southern California. Under a new “three-strikes” policy adopted by CDFW in January 2018, if landowners in those two areas request a depredation permit, CDFW will twice issue a nonlethal permit, requiring the landowner to use nonlethal measures to protect their animals and dissuade a mountain lion from killing again. Only after a third depredation will a CDFW warden or biologist issue a lethal depredation permit.

The “three strikes rule” is spurring CDFW to be more discerning about when a kill permit is issued and the requirements on the landowner are stricter, said Dr. Winston Vickers, a vet and biologist who worked with the Southern California Mountain Lion Study since its inception in 2001. Vickers has also assisted Martins in his research. There are no limits in place as to how many depredation permits a landowner can request from CDFW.

“All mountain lions, here [in Northern California] or down south, we believe that if given the opportunity, will predate livestock – goats in particular. So if the policy is to have an animal killed if it kills livestock, you can end up killing all the mountain lions,” said Vickers. Often, according to Vickers and Martins, if a lion is killed, another lion, usually a young male looking for territory, will move in to take its place.

“What is concerning [in Sonoma Valley] is that [the mother] P1 is able to get her offspring to dispersal age, but then they get killed before they can have an impact on the population in a meaningful way. No transfer of new genes to other populations, for example,” said Martins.

P6 was a kitten from a litter of three born to P1 during the study. The two other kittens died before they were able to reach adulthood, although the causes were unknown, and a kitten from a previous litter, P2, was killed under a depredation permit in December 2017 in the Sonoma Mountain area.

The bar is set very high to implement something like the [three-strikes policy],” said Justin Dellinger, a CDFW senior environmental scientist studying mountain lion populations across the state. Dellinger and CDFW contend the two-year-old Living with Lions study will need many more years of research before any meaningful conclusions about population impacts can be drawn. “You can’t infer from an individual kill the impact it will have on a population unless you have population estimates and sex ratios,” said Dellinger.

CDFW puts the statewide mountain lion population at 4,000 to 6,000, but admits that’s a “guesstimate.” At this time, California has no formal management plan for the animal, but is currently working on a more detailed population study by tracking and collaring cats around the state. The new study is expected to be available in 2022 and, depending on the result, could lead to more structured management of the population, whether that means controlling it or preserving it.

Ag priority is to protect commercial livestock

Until more is known about the health of the mountain lion population in California as a whole, many counties around the state provide some sort of trapping and extermination service for ranchers and farmers. “We have had this program in place for decades, as in virtually every other county in the state,” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. “The primary objective of our program is to assist commercial livestock owners with depredation issues. That helps maintain diversity of agriculture in Sonoma County.”

The wildlife specialist is a county employee and there is no fee to have them come out. “Currently, we have one wildlife specialist, so there is a lot of demand,” said Linegar. “We get calls for pigs, lions, bears, and are constantly prioritizing commercial livestock over other calls. We prioritize matters of public safety over all others.” In the case of the killing of P6, Linegar, who has first-hand knowledge of the incident, said the landowner (whose name is not being released by the county or CDFW), had shot at and wounded the mountain lion while it was in the act of killing one of his goats (legal under California state law). With a wounded lion on the property and a group of workers pruning in the vineyard, the landowner called CDFW in alarm and CDFW contacted the county because they felt the lion was an imminent threat to public safety. It was not the first goat the landowner had lost due to mountain lion depredation and he, like many landowners and ranchers who contact the county Agriculture Department, had worked diligently to protect his livestock after previous attacks.

Often, said Linegar, the wildlife specialist first plays the role of advisor, educating landowners about how to use nonlethal techniques like fencing, guard dogs, hot wires, or light and sound hazing to discourage predators. Those nonlethal methods are very common in Sonoma County.

“In almost every case when a rancher contacts us and a depredation permit is involved, they have already attempted nonlethal measures. Many ranchers are trying very hard to use nonlethal methods to prevent depredation from occurring,” said Linegar.

“And it’s not as easy as it sounds to exclude a lion from a commercial livestock operation,” he said. “It’s easy to keep 20-25 goats in a box, but it’s different when it’s a different scale.”

Linegar defines a commercial livestock operator as one who makes money by raising livestock, not for personal meat consumption. “There are hobbyists and we tend not to put our resources into that area.” Sonoma Valley does not have as many commercial livestock operations as in other parts of the county, but there are a few, he said.

Ponsford and Martins contend it is these smaller “hobby” operations where all the conflicts have happened in Sonoma Valley. “We haven’t lost a single animal in our study area where people can claim to be commercial farmers,” said Martins. “From March 2017 to now, there were 17 cases of depredation by cats in the study and in every case it was a handful of livestock being kept. In one case, the landowner had about two-dozen animals in an improperly secured enclosure.”

According to information Cullens has received from the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Orange County, that mirrors the statewide trend. “The majority of lions killed for depredation are not taken from large commercially viable livestock operations,” said Cullens. The UCCE does research on and education about livestock and rangeland management, in addition to a myriad of other economic, agricultural, natural resource, youth development and nutrition issues.

Two sides must collaborate

As for the county’s part, it won’t move forward until there is more evidence of collaboration and outreach, said Gorin. “Work with ag first and then we’ll see where we stand with an alternative.”

Gorin said she’s in the process of reviewing other county policies on nonlethal alternatives. “The challenge is if you trap and remove a lion, other lions will come into the same territory,” said Gorin.

“We don’t have enough lion activity to really know for certain, but I would say that the people we have helped with depredation issues haven’t had a repeat issue with another lion moving in to predate,” said Linegar. But Linegar also said it’s unclear how long it takes for another lion to fill that territory. “I hope Mr. Martins study would reveal that.”

“There is a lot of study and science being done from a preservation perspective, but not as much from a management standpoint,” pointed out Linegar. California does not manage its mountain lion population like other states, such as through open hunting, he said.

Martins has seven cats currently collared in his study. The largest range, that of the resident male P5, covers an approximately 250-square-mile area. Linegar said his staff know from personal accounts of at least three to four other lions not currently part of the study in that approximately 200-square-mile area, which is a fair amount of lions for that size of an area.

“These lions live on the fringes of development, so their behavior is different than, say, one who lives in the middle of the Sierras away from people,” said Linegar.

Martins would argue that this urban living situation is exactly what puts the cats in the ACR study at such a high risk for mortality. Martins has tracked P5 and determined his territory crosses 17,000 individually owned land parcels. That’s 17,000 times he could have a conflict with a landowner, who could then request a depredation permit.

One of the predator-proof pens built by the Mountain Lion Foundation
One of the predator-proof pens built by the Mountain Lion Foundation for Southern California alpaca owner Victoria Vaughn following the depredation by a lion in 2017. Courtesy of the Mountain Lion Foundation

“A lion might traverse 17,000 parcels, but it only take one person out of those to kill it. And the 16,999 others get deprived of that natural beauty. It seems so incredibly unbalanced and unfair,” said Ponsford.

In an effort to boost public awareness and education about livestock protection, this November Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR) will host a demonstration of a predator-safe enclosure promoted by the Mountain Lion Foundation at its Predator Exclusions and Education Program (PEEPS) Barnyard in Petaluma. Ponsford, who also volunteers with SCWR, said this could be a good educational opportunity for anyone who has lost animals to any type of predator, not just mountain lions. The predator-proof enclosure is light weight, simple to set up and costs around $600. “Of course, even if you have an enclosure, you still have to use it,” she said.

“If we could just resolve the situation of the number of livestock being adequately protected, we could be reducing the number of lions killed,” said Cullens.

“Of course, therein lies the rub – a lot of ranchers would like to build a great barn, or bury their fences five feet deep, or fence 200 acres of grazing land, but it comes down to economics and if the cost of exclusion exceeds the viability, then there you go, we’ve lost another livestock rancher. If we value and want to keep the diversity of ag in this county, this is important,” said Linegar.

“As a vet I think about depredation and the loss of life of a pet or livestock is of equal concern to me,” said Vickers. “Just as one might urge husbandry changes to avoid disease – like changing water or administering medicine – it’s all part and parcel to me. It’s getting people to recognize that they play a role in protecting their animals from predators. The deaths were preventable in nearly all depredation cases we’ve seen. The disease will still be out there, even if you’re protecting your animals from it, just like a predator will always be out there, another lion, that will take the place of the one killed.”

“It won’t be an easy choice. It will be the citizenry and people coming together to see where they want to draw those lines in terms of protecting agriculture and people’s livestock,” said Cullens. “It’s not critical to polarize around this. It’s critical to have that deep and long discussion.”

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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