Half Dome in California's Yosemite National Park
 

MOUNTAIN LIONS IN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA

Mountain lion field research and population estimates have come a long way in the last few decades. Most biologists now agree on an average lion population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state. Marc Kenyon, CDFG's Bear and Lion Coordinator recently (2012) gave credence to that estimate when he stated that California's lion "population size is, in fact, smaller than it was 10 years ago." He attributed this decrease to dwindling lion habitat and the hunting policies in surrounding states. He estimates California's statewide lion population to be approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.

SUMMARY: Mountain Lions in the State of California




Mountain Lion Habitat and Population in California

The state of California encompasses 155,959 square miles of land. Of this, an estimated 71,117 square miles, or 46 percent of the state is considered to be suitable mountain lion habitat. This habitat is distributed throughout the state except for the Central Valley and much of the southeastern deserts.

Since 1972, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) has claimed that there are approximately 4,000 to 6,000 lions residing in California. This rough estimate is based on what CDFG admits is only a "guesstimate," and is clearly too high and outdated.

CDFG originally based their crude population estimate on a series of studies which estimated lion population densities for different habitat types around the state. These density estimates varied from zero to 10 lions per 100 square miles, and were simply extrapolated to accommodate the total amount of available habitat type.

Mountain lion field research and population estimates have come a long way in the last few decades. Most biologists now agree on an average lion population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state.

Marc Kenyon, CDFG's Bear and Lion Coordinator recently (2012) gave credence to that estimate when he stated that California's lion "population size is, in fact, smaller than it was 10 years ago." He attributed this decrease to dwindling lion habitat and the hunting policies in surrounding states. He estimates California's statewide lion population to be approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.

Unfortunately, statewide mountain lion population estimates cannot properly indicate the health of the species. According to noted lion researcher Dr. Rick Hopkins, "It is important to keep in mind that no western state, including California, supports one cougar population. There are several populations in the state that react to changes in their environment independent of one another. It is unrealistic to assume that a statewide population of any species, let alone the cougar, is responding in a similar fashion at the same time. For example, the intense development pressure that the population of cougars is experiencing in Orange County is in no way relevant to what is happening in Humboldt County."

History of Mountain Lion Management in California

Historically, mountain lions were heavily persecuted in California. Classified as a "bountied predator" from 1907 to 1963, a record 12,462 mountain lions were killed (more than any other state) and turned in for the bounty. The bounty on California's mountain lions was repealed in 1963, and the species was reclassified as a "non-protected mammal."

In 1969, the state legislature again reclassified mountain lions as a "game mammal." This action was undertaken to control supposed livestock damage and to "manage" mountain lions through regulated hunting.



In 1971 and 1972 California held its only regulated lion-hunting seasons, during which time 118 mountain lions were killed for sport.

In 1971, the state legislature passed new legislation, signed by then governor, Ronald Reagan which placed a moratorium on the sport hunting of mountain lions. The lion hunting moratorium, which started on March 1, 1972, was maintained until 1986 at which time the regulated hunting of mountain lions was once again authorized. Despite this authorization, political pressure from individual citizens and conservation organizations such as the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF) kept lions from being hunted for sport in California over the next four years.

In 1990, a coalition of conservation organizations, including MLF, placed Proposition 117 — commonly known as the "mountain lion initiative — on the statewide ballot. This proposition, the first to have been placed solely with signatures collected by volunteers in California, passed on June 5, 1990 with 52.42 percent of the vote. Officially known as the , Proposition 117 reclassified mountain lions in California as a "specially protected mammal," permanently banned the sport hunting of lions in the state, and allocated $30 million to be spent annually for 30 years on the acquisition of critical habitat for mountain lions, deer, oak woodlands, endangered species, riparian habitat, and other wildlife.

In 1996, trophy-hunting proponents got the state legislature to place Proposition 197 on the March primary ballot. Drafted in part by the Safari Club, this initiative was presented to voters under the guise of "public safety" concerns in an effort to overturn the ban on killing mountain lions for recreational purposes. Proposition 197 was overwhelmingly rejected by 58.12 percent of California's voters.

 

Since the 1996 failure to repeal the State's lion-hunting ban, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts by lawmakers to introduce legislation that would overturn Proposition 117's lion-hunting restrictions.

 

At this time, California has no formal management plan for mountain lions. State law requires CDFG to issue a depredation permit against any offending lion, if a resident requests one and there is proof that the mountain lion has preyed on or threatened domestic animals or private property. Mountain lions can also be killed at any time if deemed a threat to the public's safety.


On September 6, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 132 into law. This groundbreaking legislation (effective January 1, 2014), protects lions that accidentally wander into human-populated areas. Law Enforcement and Wildlife Officers can only kill a lion if it is posing an imminent threat to human life: exhibiting aggressive behavior towards a person that is not due to the presence of first responders.

The new law (F&G Code 4801.5) also allows CDFW to partner with qualified individuals, educational institutions, government agencies, or nongovernmental organizations to implement nonlethal procedures on a mountain lion which include rescue and rehabilitation.

Human-Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in California

Since 1907 (the first year data is available) an estimated 15,951 mountain lions have been killed by humans in California. This figure does not include:

  • lion deaths from road accidents,

  • secondary poisoning,

  • kittens or injured adults euthanized by CDFG,

  • death by unknown causes,

  • poaching,
  • and "shoot-shovel-and-shut up" practice espoused by some ranchers.


Most of these deaths (12,462) occurred prior to 1963 while mountain lions were considered a bountied predator.

Bounty Period 1907-1963 12,462
1971-72 Hunting Period 118
Depredation Kills 1964-1990 602
Depredation Kills 1991-2013 2,542
Bighorn Sheep Program 1999-2010 22
Public Safety Kills 1990-2013 144
Other / Unspecified 61
Total 15,951



Since the passage of Proposition 117, it is estimated that 2,542 mountain lions have been killed in California as a result of issued Depredation Permits, and 144 lions killed for public safety reasons.

California's Killing Fields

Based on a lion-mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, California averages 0.16 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLF's mortality ranking system, California ranks 11th (least deadly) amongst the 11 states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.

 

Depredation related occurrences account for 94 percent of all reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities in California. Notably, "hobby-farm" animals, such as sheep and goats, are currently the most common type of domestic animal involved in human-lion conflicts. According to one California Fish and Game Warden, who has had to kill numerous lions on depredation permits, the number of lions killed in California could be reduced by at least 50 percent if people properly protected their domestic animals.

 
Graph of human-caused mountain lion mortality in California.


Last Update: April 2014

The Day the Safety Net Failed

04/20/10 Amy Rodrigues, MLF Outreach Coordinator

Two mountain lion kittens have exposed a gaping hole in mountain lion protection policies. California still has much work to do before lions will truly be "specially protected." The ban on recreational hunting was only a first step. Remaining on the "to-do" list: clarifying policies and facilitating communication between the state Department of Fish & Game, wildlife rescue groups, and the public.

CLICK TO VIEW DOCUMENTS ABOUT COUGARS IN CALIFORNIA


California Fish and Game Code 4800-4810 - Mountain Lions - January 2014

California Fish and Wildlife's Mountain Lion Interaction Guidelines - March 2013

California SB 132 MLF Letter of Support

California Senate Bill 132 - Mountain Lion Public Safety - Sen. Jerry Hill 2013

CA Assembly Bill 2402 Changes to the California Fish and Game Department and Commission September 2012

CA Assembly Bill 2609 Changes to the Structure of the California Fish and Game Commission September 2012

California CDFG Public Safety Wildlife Guidelines 2072 - INACTIVE

After the Hunt: Challenges Facing California's Mountain Lion

Biological Status of Mountain Lion in California - Fitzhugh - Gorenzel 1986

California - 1990- June 5 Primary - Statement of Vote

California 1996-March 26 Primary - Statement of Vote

California 2000 Census Report

California  2008 Mountain Lion Status Report - Proceedings from the 9th Mountain Lion Workshop

California - Human Population Projections 2005-2020

California - Public Safety Kills

California - CA SB769 MLF Letter of Support

California - Verified Mountain Lion Attacks on Humans

Changing Status of Mountain Lion in CA & Livestock Depredation Problems - Weaver 1978

Community Conservation of California Mountain Lions

Investigations on the Status of California Mountain Lion - Sitton 1972

Mountain Lion Predation on Livestock in California - Sitton 1978

Trends in Mountain Lion Depredation and Public Safety Threats in California - Mansfield - Torres 1994

California Assembly Bill 1784 - Mountain Lion Research - Monning 2012

California SB 1221 MLF Letter of Support

America's Lion Biology & Behavior Poster 11"x17" - California

Why You Should Oppose the Closure of California's State Game Refuges

Mountain Lion Foundation Comment on Proposed Closure of California Game Refuges

Public Comments on Proposed Closure of California Game Refuges