Coexisting with predatory wildlife

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Some say the mountain lion should be hunted, to instill the fear of humans in them and thereby avoiding attacks. Others stress the importance of peacefully coexisting with the animal.

By Lori Allen /Special to The Malibu Times

The recent killing of a local female mountain lion by her mate has brought to the forefront the question of the safety of living close to the predatory wildlife of the Santa Monica Mountains. Wildlife advocates continue to stress the importance of peacefully coexisting with mountain lions in Malibu yet, other outdoor experts believe that there is still a great risk for mountain lions launching unexpected attacks on humans and pets.

Known by some as the misunderstood beast, certain wildlife experts argue the importance of not holding an unrealistic view about how dangerous the mountain lion can really be.

The debate over whether the animal should be hunted continues to stir up controversy. As California continues to expand and urbanize, the mountain lion, as well as other wildlife, faces a natural threat of occupying territory in the state.

“The problem for bike riders, joggers and hikers in the wilderness is that the mountain lion has its own habitat,” said Pat McDonnell, editor of Western Outdoor News, a weekly hunting and fishing publication.

“Since the population of mountain lion rises, it creates an imbalance where more people are exposed to the animal,” McDonnell said.

“Mountain lions, I do not believe, have a healthy fear of man because they are not hunted,” McDonnell added.

In 1972, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, issued a temporary suspension on hunting mountain lions for sporting purposes. Eighteen years later, voters passed Proposition 117, which permanently banned the sport of hunting mountain lions in California. However, if a mountain lion threatens, attacks or kills a pet or livestock, the California Department of Fish and Game will issue a depredation permit to kill the lion.

Developer Brian Sweeney was granted a depredation permit in 2003 when the local male mountain lion, called P1 by researchers, allegedly killed some of his goats on Malibu property. Although Sweeney was issued the permit, amidst public outcry the hunt was called off and no other reported mountain lion attacks or fatalities had occurred in Malibu since that incident-until last month.

Biologist Seth Riley from the National Park Service said the well-known male mountain lion (P1) living in the Santa Monica Mountains killed the female mountain lion probably over territory or jealousy issues regarding their four kittens. However, Riley does not see any threat to humans in the area.

“Mountain lions are dangerous carnivores,” Riley explained in a recent interview, “but they are more dangerous to deer and other four-legged predators than they are to humans, because they see humans as competition.”

Outdoor writer Mike Dickerson sees the situation differently. He is an advocate for the repeal of Prop 117 and its statewide ban on sport hunting on mountain lions.

“Mountain lions have always been a part of the scenery in the Santa Monica Mountains and their numbers will likely increase, and so will the potential for tragedy,” Dickerson said.

“I am neither a lover nor hater of the mountain lions,” he continued, “but management of the species should be under the control of the DFG. This is the approach used by most western states, often on a carefully controlled quota basis, and it works. It won’t eliminate the danger of attacks by mountain lions, but would help lessen the danger by instilling a healthy fear of humans in mountain lions.”

Dana Murray, director of education for the California Wildlife Center, urges people to learn more about the nature of mountain lions before deciding if they should be hunted.

“Mountain lions were living in Southern California long before people resided here,” she said. “It is our responsibility to co-exist and prevent problems.”

The battle of whether the animal should live near humans worries not only Southern Californians (in Orange County last year, a bike rider was killed by a mountain lion while fixing his bike), but also those living in the north. The New York Times reported that town officials in Atherton have confirmed six recent mountain lion sightings since 2003. The mountain lions living up north and in the Santa Monica Mountains have not harmed anyone yet, but residents fear that they can attack children and small animals at any time. Wildlife experts claim some of these residents are overreacting. However, some people are too afraid to step outside their homes because of a lion sighting or an attack.

“It’s a beautiful animal but mountain lions do not belong in our neighborhood,” said Silicon Valley resident Raymond Lane in an interview for the New York Times. “The answer is take them out.”

Christa Mann, a Southern California field representative from The Mountain Lion Foundation, spoke to the Rotary Club of Malibu last month about the basic biology and behavior of mountain lions, as well as why it is important to comfortably coexist with them.

“The mountain lions are the top predator in the wild and they have tremendous influence over the other predators in the ecosystem as well as prey,” said Mann, who also explained why mountain lions are essential to lands and roads in California. “If you remove a top predator from the ecosystem, all the prey animals like deer will increase as a result of no predator control.”

This, Mann said, would result in change of the vegetation in the area, possibly having a detrimental affect on roads and land.

Ray Sauvajot, chief of planning, science and resource management for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said mountain lions in the area prey on deer approximately one each every week. (It is believed that there may be only one adult male left in the area with the recent death of the female, and the death of a male and female last year.)

Sauvajot agrees with Mann that removal of the mountain lion would have an influence among the other species in the food chain and the “ecosystem would forever change.”

“A piece of nature would be lost forever and the ecosystems would respond accordingly,” Sauvajot said. “Would the average person be aware of the changes in many years? Perhaps not. But we would always know that an important component of the natural ecology of the area disappeared on our watch and from the parks we value so dearly. This is reason enough for me to be concerned about the possible demise of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and Southern California.”

Regarding the fear people have of the creature, Manny said, “many people at the Malibu meeting were concerned about encountering a mountain lion in the area, but there has never been any sightings by the general public [of] mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. Most of the time they see us, we do not see them.”

If confronted by a mountain lion, Mann said to “not run,” and “stand ground and try to be as big as possible. Make eye contact with the animal, throw things, and try to scare the animal away by shouting. Mountain lions use their body as a tool and will try to avoid conflict if they can. Just give them a forward avenue of escaping you.”