Local mountain lion safe, for now

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This male mountain lion was captured in Malibu and collared last year, then released. It may be the same one for which developer Brian Sweeney received a permit to kill from Fish and Game, after a lion killed some of Sweeny's goats.

Fish and Game issued permits to study lion, then to kill it.Some say lions should be relocated. Officials say the cats offer clues to health of ecosystem.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

Mountain lion P1, which was being chased by dogs and a professional hunter for killing goats that belonged to developer Brian Sweeney, has apparently moved on to other territory. And Sweeney, who insists he never meant to harm the lion, has apparently called off the hunt.

The depredation permit that gave Sweeney 10 days to kill the 143-pound lion, thought to be the last male cat left in the Santa Monica Mountains, was unusual for Southern California, in part because there isn’t much livestock left and also because the mountain lion population has been diminished by development. Most incidents involving livestock and mountains lions have occurred in Northern California where goats and sheep are professionally raised, and where they’re sometimes used to clear vegetation for fire protection.

Sweeney, who lives in Manhattan Beach, says his operation qualifies as a hobby farm. The 612 acres where his 180 goats, cattle, sheep and lamas graze is in the largely steep country between Pepperdine University and Malibu Creek State Park. The property originally belonged to the Adamson family, which attempted to sell it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Sweeney, who is known for buying environmentally valuable land and then threatening to develop it, eventually stepped in after that deal fell through.

The state department of Fish and Game was in the bizarre position last week of having issued the permit that allowed the park service to study mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains while at the time issuing the permit that allowed Sweeny to kill P1. When Warden Cindy Wood determined a lion had killed five of Sweeny’s goats, the park service reported that data from the cat’s radio telemetry collar confirmed he had been in the area.

Fish and Game biologist Morgan Wehtje said the law under which the depredation permit is issued is designed as a way of compensating livestock owners and dates back to “the days of the old west” when ranchers ran sheep and cattle on the open range. Scientists who have been tracking P1’s kills for more than a year report that before he discovered goats, the lion had fed exclusively on mule deer, with the exception of one coyote and a raccoon. National Park Service Superintendent Woody Smeck suggested the lion was hunting a deer when he discovered Sweeny’s operation.

“Putting livestock in a situation like that is just like putting up a neon sign,” Wehtje said, who says a five-foot fence like Sweeney installed was far from adequate for protection against coyotes let alone mountain lions.

But Malibu real estate agent and property rights activist Anne Hoffman took a less understanding view. Hoffman wants to see any lions in the park relocated, and she doesn’t believe park service reports that there are only two lions left. Hoffman says she’s concerned about the safety of her daughter at their ranch in Encinal Canyon where she’s sure she’s seen mountain lion scat. “We have a tragedy waiting to happen. Take the three, four or nine of them and breed them somewhere else.”

But breeding isn’t the point said NPS wildlife ecologist Seth Riley, who said mountains lions offer the best clues to the health of an ecosystem.

“If the lions are doing well so will everything else,” Riley said. “Our job is to preserve the natural systems in the Santa Monica Mountains. If we’re not able to maintain the mountain lion here where it occurs naturally, then we’re not doing our job as good as we could.”

Riley also points out that NPS researchers have been looking for more than two years and haven’t seen any signs of other animals.

“P1 uses the entire range,” Riley said, and “male lions are very territorial. This is the first time anyone has tried to study mountains in the Santa Monica Mountains so we don’t know how many there might have been here.”

Laura Small, land use deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said Sweeney doesn’t need a permit to graze animals on his land, which is zoned for agriculture. Small said Yaroslavsky’s office took a number of calls when the news got out last Wednesday about the lion hunter, including one from Assemblyperson Fran Pavley (D-41). “I asked if anyone had talked to Sweeny,” Small said, “then I telephoned him and explained the lion was part of a research project and why that was important.”

In a letter sent to Fish and Game after Small’s call, Sweeney admitted he hired a “mountain lion expert,” but insisted he understands that wildlife is part of Malibu’s “ambiance.”

City manager Katie Lichtig said the city doesn’t have a policy regarding mountains lions, although she described what she called the goal “of striking a balance between living in a rural area and being safe.”