Twenty years ago, California voters passed Proposition 117--the Mountain Lion Initiative. Also known as the "People's Initiative" because it was the first statewide initiative in California to qualify for the ballot strictly through the efforts of unpaid volunteers, Proposition 117:
* Changed the classification of mountain lions in California from game mammals to "Specially Protected Mammals,"
* banned the practice of killing mountain lions in California for fun, and
* directed the California State legislature to allocate a minimum of $30 million annually for thirty years towards the acquisition of critical habitat for all of the state's wildlife.
While some might consider Proposition 117 as a complete reversal of positions--California had been responsible for the greatest number of lions slaughtered in the country (12,461) during its 57-year "Bounty Period"--in fact it was just the culmination of a shifting value system which can be traced back almost eighteen-years earlier when Governor Ronald Regan placed a moratorium on the trophy hunting of lions in California.
When the annual renewal of the moratorium was blocked by the legislature in 1986, concerned activists gathered to form the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation-the fore-bearer of MLF-- and the fight to save mountain lions was on!
A quote from a San Francisco Chronicle Editorial possibly best expresses the attitude of MLF and many other Californians at that time.
"Few of us in this state have actually seen a mountain lion. But the knowledge they are there, spectral and feral, gives meaning to the remote land we must save."
Although banning the trophy hunting of mountain lions was in itself a huge accomplishment, Proposition 117 possibly contributed more to ensure the long term survival of lions in California through the habitat acquisition element of the initiative. Mountain lions are a keystone species requiring large tracts of land and dispersal corridors. Without the habitat aspect of Proposition 117, it would have been only a matter of time before irreplaceable mountain lion territory was developed and the species killed off for coming into contact with humans. By ensuring sufficient habitat for lions, Californians were also protecting land for thousands of other species. To date, Proposition 117 has protected well over 2 million acres for wildlife in California.
Mountain lions may no longer be killed for fun, but they are still far from safe. Around one hundred cougars are killed every year in California for conflicts with pets and livestock. Most of these encounters could have easily been prevented by the owners bringing their pets indoors at night or securing livestock in covered pens after dark. However, protecting domestic animals is not mandatory and lions continue to pay the price for this oversight.
There is also no requirement for changing animal husbandry practices or limiting the number of lions an individual can have killed for depredation of pets or livestock. While MLF has tried to help repeat-permit-requestors safeguard their animals, this has been a difficult task due to confidentiality restrictions.
The California Department of Fish & Game is the agency responsible for managing the state's mountain lion population. However, twenty-years after the passage of Proposition 117, they still have not written a management plan or provided adequate guidelines for how to handle lion encounters. For whatever unspoken reason, the Department refuses to officially relocate lions that accidentally wander into populated areas, and as a rule, declines to work with the wildlife rescue organizations trained specifically for such instances. While a few wardens have shown tolerance and allowed lost lions to wander back into wilderness areas, the majority appear to believe that because an encounter with a lion could potentially be dangerous, the cat must be killed.
Although California's mountain lion legislation is a milestone towards protecting the American lion across the West, it surely does not indicate we have successfully learned to coexist with the species. There still is plenty of work to be done to conserve wild habitat, protect domestic animals, teach people about wildlife, and prevent the unnecessary killing of our American lion. The fight is far from over.