On Valentine's Day, the San Francisco Chronicle published a column by outdoor columnist Tom Stienstra, who said he had suddenly become aware of a report that has been mandated by law for decades: CDFW's Annual Mountain Lion Necropsy Report.
Rather than doing a little research, or considering the contents in context, Stienstra sensationalized the report to inflame the public's fear of mountain lions. Perhaps his resulting column was a gift to the few remaining trophy hunters who still yearn to bag a big tom in the Golden State.
It's nothing new. A 25 year old statute requires CDFW report annually on the number and characteristics of mountain lions killed for depredation (preying on domestic animals) in the state. It was part of Proposition 117
, the citizen initiative that ended mountain lion trophy hunting in California in 1990. Title 14, Section 402
requires any mountain lion killed under depredation law (for threatening or preying on domestic animals) be tagged and turned over to the Department for necropsy (animal autopsy).
Mountain lions are classified as a specially protected mammal in California and not shot for trophies, but can still be killed if injuring pets or livestock. Data from these lions helps us identify where, when and possibly why these incidents occur, and work to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.
But this year, prior to publication by the department, the report got waylaid, and Tom Stienstra decided to slant it to his own point of view. He titled his article "Study finds mountain lions are feasting on house pets," used the phrase "a pet owner's nightmare," and seemed surprised to discover that of the lions examined, "only 5 percent had eaten deer, which are supposed to be their favorite prey, but are harder to catch than house cats."
Stienstra summarizes CDFW's findings, saying "The report detailed that 107 mountain lions were killed last year legally under provisions of special depredation permits. Of those 107 lions, the stomach contents of 83 were analyzed, and 52 percent were found to have eaten cats, dogs or other domestic animals."
Obviously, countered Panthera's Mark Elbroch on Facebook
: "Lions killed on depredation permits are those killed BECAUSE THEY ATE PETS OR LIVESTOCK, so of course that's what's in their stomachs."
Ideally, every single one of the 107 lions would have remains of a domestic animal in its belly. Otherwise, there's a good chance the lion was wrongly killed and yet another innocent animal died.
Says Elbroch of Stienstra's sensationalism, "Don't let this study scare you! Its a classic misinterpretation of real data... The article reads like this is some representative sample of all mountain lions in California! Which it is NOT. If there are 5000 lions in the state, then this is approximately 1% of all lions in the state with pets in their stomach."
"We would also add that the author should have highlighted that 14% of the lions killed with depredation permits (5% with deer in stomach and 9% empty) were clearly killed for no reason -- meaning they got the wrong cat, if indeed a lion committed the depredation in the first place."
Most pet and livestock depredations are the result of feral domestic dogs. Lions will also scavenge off kills made by other animals, so seeing a lion or its tracks near a dead goat does not prove a mountain lion was responsible.
Unfortunately, because Stienstra didn't put the results in proper context and conveniently failed to include a link to the actual CDFW report, many other news outlets have picked up the story.
Mountain lions have a rough life and the last thing they need is more bad press.
Some California mountain lions are in serious trouble.
All of the mountain lion studies currently under way in California have found high incidence of poisons, heavy losses to road kill, and yes, losses on depredation permits, for their collared research lions. Some have found anomalies like kinked tails that point to significant isolation of populations and a diminishing genetic pool.
The mountain lion study in Mendocino
found far fewer lions per square mile than they had expected. In one of the richest natural areas of the State, with high abundance of black-tailed deer and without trophy hunting, the researchers found mountain lion population densities comparable to the lowest ever recorded for the species (in Utah, 1994).
Tom Stienstra can't seem to find anything new to say about mountain lions, all his veiled hints lead back to what angry trophy hunters prophesied when the public fought back to protect the mountain lion.
California doesn't indiscriminately kill its lions.
Peer-reviewed research published over the past decade has established that hunting mountain lions for sport or trophies actually increases the risk to domestic animals. When large, capable "trophy" lions are removed from their well-established territories, multiple younger lions quickly move in.
Read Troubled Teens for more information about the research that hunting contributes to increasing conflicts.
Unlike the many states that hunt lions for sport and experience a self-fulfilling circle of conflict and culling, California law prevents killing of any mountain lion unless it can be demonstrated that it has depredated on domestic animals or poses an imminent public safety risk.
When livestock or pets are lost and the loss is believed to be caused by a mountain lion, California sends out a trained professional to determine whether the animal was in fact killed by a lion. It can be a difficult call to make, because people care deeply for their domestic animals, and want to see something done. Even when a mountain lion has been present, the lion might only be scavenging at the carcass of a domestic animal that died for other reasons.
As Brian Carrier commented in response to Panthera's post, "There are larger issues at play than just 'lion eats fluffy' and it is irresponsible of any reporter to sensationalize issues that can effect the choices people make. The relationship between human and wild animals is complicated and emotional. As such, it should be given the respect it deserves."
Carefully and methodically responding to conflicts on an incident by incident basis is exactly what makes California's policies different from those of other states.
Even so, California often kills the wrong predator.
Says Elbroch of Stienstra's sensationalism, "We would also add that the author should have highlighted that 14% of the lions killed with depredation permits (5% with deer in stomach and 9% empty) were clearly killed for no reason -- meaning they got the wrong cat, if indeed a lion committed the depredation in the first place."
Most pet and livestock depredations are the result of feral domestic dogs.
Pets seldom fall prey to mountain lions.
It's important to note Stienstra characterized the domestic animals as pets, when the vast majority of mountain lion depredations are on small livestock -- particularly goats -- that are inadequately protected. The report makes no distinction, and the domestic animals referenced include livestock and hobby animals, as well as pets.
Stienstra also fails to note that when depredations occur on the same property, year after year, and mountain lions are killed, year after year, that the taxpayer picks up the pricey cost of the repeated kills. The pet or livestock owner who fails to keep their domestic animals safe, year after year, pays not a single cent.
Cost-effective conservation is, of course, why Mountain Lion Foundation works hard to improve , nonlethal methods for protecting livestock
and specifically works with 4-H and small livestock owners to build model pens
to keep livestock safe and mountain lions and other predators out. It's why we work with distributors of products like Foxlights
to reach out to people who have experienced losses and are looking for ways to improve protection on their properties. It's why we attend events like The California Rangeland Summit to rub elbows with ranchers and learn more about what we can do to help. And it's why we seek out opportunities to collaborate with agencies like CDFW to improve and distribute non-lethal methods for protecting domestic animals and wildlife alike.
But this confusion about pets was not enough for Stienstra, who seems to believe that Californians would be better served by hunting mountain lions for sport and trophies again.
Yes, Tom, even lazy lions do eat deer.
Stienstra continued with more misdirection, saying "Only 5 percent had eaten deer, which are supposed to be their favorite prey, but are harder to catch than house cats. Of the rest of the lions detailed in the report, 16 percent were not studied, 9 percent had empty stomachs, and 18 percent had contents that were too digested to be identified."
Obviously, since the report is strictly data from mountain lions killed through depredation permits. It's not a survey of stomach contents from lions chosen as random.
And Tom Stienstra knows that deer remain the lion's preferred prey in California. In a 2014 column titled Cougars Can't Order In
, he made the following misleading statement: "Since lion populations started expanding, California's deer population has declined from 2 million in the 1960s to 850,000 in the 1990s and an estimated 445,000 this past winter, according to DFW."
And while the sentence is "technically" true, Stienstra wants to point to the puma as the cause of deer herd declines. The scientific data do not support that killing mountain lions will increase deer populations. It's the other way around. Mountain lion populations fluctuate and are limited based on the health of the deer herds.
But deer herd declines aren't caused by lions.
It's easy to assume that if mountain lions are the primary cause of deer death, that they must be the cause of diminishing deer populations, but this is not the case. Deer and mountain lions have evolved to an equilibrium.
Mountain lion populations are self-regulating, and when there are not enough deer to sustain them, mountain lion populations drop. To get a sense of the complexity of the relationships, read The Black-Tailed Deer Population Assessment in the Mendocino National Forest, California.
and Feeding and spatial ecology of mountain lions in the Mendocino National Forest, California
CDFW's recently revised Deer Management Plan
states that "In California the biggest stressor on deer populations has been the decline in quality and loss/conversion of deer habitat." and concludes: "In retrospect, given a combination of less habitat supporting deer, combined with other stressors impacting populations, restoring populations to the 1960's levels is an aspirational goal with a low likelihood of success."
Biologists have long known that deer herds were at an unsustainable high in the 60's and 70's due to clear-cutting forest practices and bounties on all natural predators. Hunters haven't forgotten the "good old days" when they practically tripped over deer in the clear-cuts, and their memories continue to haunt America's lions.
The real culprit.
What we are seeing now is a new and diminished normal, with deer and lion populations adapting to a "new natural" that overlaps expanding human recreational activities, hillside ranchette communities and much smaller viable wildlife ranges.
In that 2014 article, Tom presented the hungry lions as ravenously searching the cities for prey: "As their populations continue to expand and disperse, mountain lions will wander into towns looking for something to eat."
In their Draft Guidelines for Human/Wildlife Interactions in California: Mountain Lion Depredation, Public Safety, and Animal Welfare
, CDFW points first to the real culprit responsible for the State's diminishing wildlife and increasing wildlife conflicts: Us.
"As California has continued to grow in human population and our communities expand into wildland areas and use those areas more frequently, there has been a commensurate increase in direct and indirect interaction between mountain lions and people and an increase in calls for service to the Department.
Anticipating the stress of habitat loss on both predator and prey populations, Mountain Lion Foundation's Proposition 117 -- the 1990 California Wildlife Protection Act -- required that California spend no less than $30 million a year on wildlife habitat protection. That will continue for another five years, for a whopping total of $900 million dollars.
Thousands of conservationists worked hard to collect signatures and get out the vote for that 1990 campaign. I was one of them. We cringe when we hear hunters say that they are the only ones to pay for California wildlife conservation. Hunters may pay a surcharge on their guns and ammo. True conservationists don't demand to take home a bloody souvenir.
CDFW's Draft Guidelines
point out that "it is widely believed that the mountain lion population has increased in numbers statewide since the 1970s."
We agree. The lion population has almost certainly increased since the 1970's, when they were heavily persecuted under the bounty system.
But unlike what Tom Stienstra implies, there is little evidence that their populations continue to rise today. If Stienstra had done just a little more research, he would have discovered that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has assembled a star-studded team to try to determine how lions are faring in the Golden State. The concern is justified.
Keeping pets indoors is just good policy, not a dire warning.
While Stienstra's statement that the 2015 Depredation Report "verified the high incidence of lions eating pets" is a complete fabrication, it's true that, as stated by CDFW's Andrew Hughan, "As a pet owner you have a responsibility for the safety of that animal, especially if you live in open space or wild animal habitat."
But the California Department's encouragement to "pet owners to keep their cats inside and their dogs leashed when outside if living in areas near open space or when visiting park lands." is simply a matter of policy, not a "warning" based on an alarming rise in pet mortality:
"Department personnel shall advise property owners of measures to reduce the potential for attracting mountain lions, and confinement and protection of livestock and pets to reduce or minimize damage." ( CDFW Draft Guidelines for Human-Wildlife Conflicts
In other words, even if you don't care about the lion, care for your lambs.
The Mountain Lion Foundation has designed and built two styles of lion-proof small livestock enclosures. One is designed for permanency, while the other works in warmer climates and can be moved. The permanent enclosure can be built for less than $1,500 and the mobile enclosure for less than $500.
Construction plans with instructions and material list can be downloaded free. Mobile Pen
or Permanent Enclosure
There is still much to accomplish. Thank you CDFW.
Mountain Lion Foundation would like to thank the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for reporting promptly in 2015, for improving its accounting of the mountain lion depredation permits issued and lions killed -- especially in the Northern Region of the state -- and for getting more of the lions that have been killed for depredation to the lab for necropsy.
We know that CDFW biologists have been making a concerted effort and we are very grateful for their work.
We are thankful for every moment a CDFW employee spends explaining the value of taking non-lethal measures to conserve California's wildlife. It's difficult to suggest to a grieving pet-owner or a livestock owner facing loss that they might have protected their animals better. We know because we have those conversations ourselves. Mountain Lion Foundation hopes that you know that your efforts are appreciated.
We are also appreciative of the support CDFW has provided for scientific research, such as that conducted in Mendocino, that informs our knowledge of conservation.
The Mountain Lion Foundation hopes that CDFW will continue to support and use science to guide their efforts, and to stand by that science while making or recommending policy.
Truthful and ethical science will allay fears and serve conservation.
Eventually that science will make its way to the entire department, and to the media screen and to the printed page. Then all of us who are willing to learn will be better able to grasp the complexity of living in a truly wild California.