SACRAMENTO, (AP) -- California's long-running debate over the sport hunting of mountain lions resumes this week as an Assembly committee considers a bill that would lift a 33-year-old ban and allow hunters to kill up to 116 of the big cats annually.
The measure by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday by the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.
It would require the Department of Fish and Game to conduct an annual lottery for the 116 hunting licenses, the equivalent of two per county. The department would also set up hunting zones in which the licenses could be used.
California has barred sport hunting of mountain lions since 1972, first through a series of moratoriums and then through Proposition 117, a ballot measure approved by voters in 1990. An attempt to overturn Proposition 117 failed in 1996.
Maze said hunting is needed to control a growing lion population that is coming into increasing contact with humans and domestic animals. His witnesses for the bill will include people who've been attacked by the cats, he said.
The lions are "becoming much more brave," he said. "They are straying into yards and picking off people's pets. My huge concern is if they're willing to attack a large dog we're just waiting for the tragedy ... of these cats picking off a child."
But the bill's critics say that sport hunting is not a good management tool.
The Department of Fish and Game hasn't taken a position on the bill, but a spokesman, Mike Wintemute, said mountain lion attacks are still very rare, although there have been an increase in the number of mountain lion sightings.
There have been only 15 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California and six deaths since 1890, according to the department. Bees, deer and lightning are a greater threat to humans.
The department issues depredation permits to kill lions that threaten life or property. The number of permits climbed from four in 1972 to 331 in 1995. Last year there were 231, resulting in the killing of 115 lions.
The department estimates that there are 4,000 to 6,000 lions in California, up from about 2,000 in the 1970s, but Lynn Sadler, president and chief executive officer of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said no one really knows how many there are or how many are needed to maintain a healthy environment.
"When people talk about the web of live, it's not a bad metaphor," she said. "You pull out one thread and if it's the wrong thread the whole thing falls apart."
The lions are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas by human population growth, she said, but people who live in rural areas can avoid attracting lions by doing things like bringing pets in at night and installing motion sensor lights.
"This generation will make a choice," she said. "Do we want lions ... in California or do we want to do what 38 other states have done, which is drive them into extinction? If we choose to save them we have to make some other land-use choices and learn how to behave so we can live in proximity with each other."
The bill faces long odds. It needs four-fifths majorities to pass the Legislature. And if it clears that hurdle it could be attacked in court on the grounds that it doesn't further the purposes of Proposition 117.