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Zeroing In on the Big Cats

Pressure is mounting to allow open hunting seasons for the mountain lion in California, bolstered in part by estimates that the lion population has doubled to about 4,800 since 1972. That was the year that California imposed a moratorium on killing the cats.

Lions also have been blamed for the decline of deer herds in the North Kings area west of Kings Canyon National Park. And a lion attack on a 5-year-old girl in a San Juan Capistrano wilderness park recently has added emotional fuel to the argument, although the attack was so rare that even wildlife experts were stupefied by it.

The population estimates are dubious. The lion is such a shy creature that it is extremely difficult to compile an accurate population count. When the Department of Fish and Game came up with its 2,400 estimate in 1972, independent wildlife experts placed the number at about 1,000. And the effect of lions on the North Kings deer herd may overlook other environmental factors affecting the health of the herd.

An attempt to extend the moratorium failed early this year, when Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill to extend it. Now hunters are trying to persuade the state Fish and Game Commission to establish a lion-hunting season. The commission tentatively decided to postpone a season for one more year, with a final decision to come at a meeting on April 25.

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Under Fish and Game supervision, the law now allows the taking of cats that are suspected of killing livestock. An open hunting season is not likely to afford any additional protection for ranchers unless the cats are virtually eliminated. If evidence is developed that the lions are responsible for decimating the North Kings deer herd, a specific control program can be developed for that area.

One sportsman told the commission this week, “We’ve had 14 years of study. Let’s get on with it and manage the (lion) population.” But sport hunting is not managing. As an official from the state Department of Parks and Recreation put it, “We’re not going to save sheep, cattle, deer or little girls and French poodles by opening up a hunting season on mountain lions.”

When even experts disagree so widely on how many--or how few--lions remain in California, there is no justification for open hunting. Remember, we had open hunting of the wolf and the California grizzly until there was one sure way of determining their numbers in the state: when they reached a nice round number--zero.


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