Local Mountain Lions Now Get Three Strikes

California State Senator Henry Stern in a November meeting with staff biologist Diana Lakeland (center) and conservation specialist Korinna Domingo with the Mountain Lion Foundation.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife has changed its policy on issuing ‘depredation permits’ that allow a property owner to kill a mountain lion that preyed on domestic animals. Up until Dec. 15, a property owner could get a kill permit for a mountain lion right away—following the first incident. The new policy, which is not statewide and applies only to the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains (including Malibu), provides for a “three strikes and you’re out” approach. The first two strikes will require property owners to use specific nonlethal means of protecting domestic animals from mountain lions. If there’s a third strike despite those efforts, a permit can then be requested to kill the mountain lion.  

Mountain lion advocates and biologists had put a tremendous amount of pressure on the state agency to change its policy ever since the agency granted a kill permit for well-known mountain lion P-45 in December 2016 after he killed several alpacas inside of a rickety enclosure outside Malibu. P-45 had gained celebrity status after somehow crossing the Ventura (101) Freeway and bringing badly needed genetic diversity to the inbred and isolated group of big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

State Senator Henry Stern said in a phone interview that he’s been working closely with Fish & Game and other stakeholders on this issue. 

“It’s all part of a bigger effort to save this apex predator species from extinction in the Santa Monica Mountains over the next 20 years,” he said. “Between rifles, freeways and poisons they may not have much of a chance, but at least if you can take the rifle out of the mix, they can get a jump start. Fish & Game realized that if they didn’t change their kill policy, one would probably be legislated for them.”  

It’s been illegal to hunt mountain lions in California since 1990, which is when the issuing of “depredation permits” went into effect. California issues around 218 permits every year, though typically less than half result in a kill. A Sacramento Bee investigation published this fall revealed that nearly four times as many lions are killed on average each year than when they were simply legal to hunt. 

The state’s mountain lion killing policy had become out of step with the reality of urban growth expanding into mountain lion areas.  

“Now, almost all cougar kill permits are issued when the cats prey on pets owned by 4-H kids and other backyard livestock enthusiasts on the edge of suburbia who keep the animals as a hobby,” the Bee reported. “Livestock groups say it doesn’t matter whether someone is making a living off the animals the cougars kill.”

After the kill permit was issued for P-45, 300 people showed up for a local National Park Service meeting about the incident, most of them outraged by the “license to kill.” 

A dozen news outlets attended local rancher Vaughn-Perling’s press conference, held in front of her alpaca enclosure. It seemed clear the unstable six-foot fence would have been no challenge for a hungry mountain lion to jump over—even if it was electrified and had motion detector lights, as she claimed. 

A former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, Wendell Phillips, shot the cat on his Malibu property, but it survived and its tracking collar shows he’s still in the area. Phillips commented on the new three strike policy to the Sacramento Bee: “The reality is, nobody will bother to apply for permits any more. Shoot, shovel and shut-up, that’s what coming.”

From now on, the first time a domestic animal is preyed on, Fish & Game will verify whether a mountain lion is to blame. If so, the property owner is asked to take action to keep the mountain lion away, using temporary deterrents like motion-sensor lights or loud music, as well as getting livestock-protecting dogs, removing the carcass, installing fencing and shelters designed to keep out mountain lions, and brush clearance.

If the mountain lion kills a second time and the state verifies it, additional measures like beanbag shots may be allowed.

If the same mountain lion comes back to the same site and kills a third time, and the state verifies it, and the property owner has taken all required preventive measures, he or she can request a “lethal depredation permit,” for 10 days  to kill one mountain lion that comes within a mile of the site.