Mountain lion preservationists and hunting proponents hauled out the heavy artillery Thursday in back-to-back press conferences aimed at influencing a California Fish and Game Commission decision today on whether to end a 16-year ban on lion hunting.
Proponents of the hunting season held a news conference featuring Donald and Susan Small, whose daughter, Laura, was mauled by a mountain lion in Orange County last year. The pro-hunting faction also described the effort to save the mountain lion as no more than a “smoke screen” for those who wish to ban hunting entirely.
The Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation, meanwhile, proposed a continued moratorium on hunting coupled with an intensive, five-year study of the state’s mountain lion population by a nationally recognized expert.
The appeals on both sides were the strongest yet in an emotional battle that has raged since 1985, when Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill that would have extended a moratorium on lion hunting. Deukmejian’s veto returned jurisdiction over the mountain lion to the Fish and Game Commission.
Today, the commission is expected to rule on a Fish and Game Department proposal for a 79-day hunting season, during which as many as 210 mountain lions could be killed. The season would be the first legal sport hunting of the big cats since 1971, when the Legislature declared the animals a protected species and enacted the hunting moratorium.
Advocates of the hunting season, who have argued that a hunt is needed because of the effect lions are having on the state’s deer population, raised a different issue Thursday with the introduction of the Smalls. Laura Small was one of two children mauled by lions last year in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.
The Smalls, who have sued the county and the state because of the attack, showed a videotape of hospital attendants removing bandages from Laura’s face, revealing puncture wounds from the lion’s teeth.
The Smalls and several legislators at the press conference conceded that the limited hunting season proposed by the state would have little or no effect on the number of contacts between lions and humans. But they said they hoped the end of the hunting moratorium would open the door to more intensive hunting in the future.
‘Must Start Somewhere’
“We support this proposal because it is a necessary first step in controlling the mountain-lion population,” Susan Small said. “The issuance of 210 permits with probably fewer than 50 kills will not have any effect on the population. . . . But we must start somewhere, and if the commission does not allow this hunt, how can it ever hope to control the mountain-lion population?”
Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) predicted that a further ban on hunting would lead to more attacks and “hysterical calls for rash action” against mountain lions. He described the strategy of the lion preservationists as “misplaced good will.”
But Sen. H.L. Richardson (R-Glendora), who is considered the National Rifle Assn.'s strongest ally in the Legislature, said opponents of the mountain lion hunt were using the controversy as a “smoke screen” to hide their true motives.
“I believe the entire movement of protecting the mountain lion is a cover for an anti-hunting movement in the state of California that’s extensive, and they’re using this as a guise of doing it,” Richardson said. “I question their motives.”
Sharon Negri, executive director of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation, said the use of the Smalls at Thursday’s press conference was the pro-hunting lobby’s “last hurrah to try to come out and emotionalize the issue over these tragic incidents.”
The five-year study proposed by Negri and the foundation would be performed by Maurice Hornocker, director of the Wildlife Research Institute in Moscow, Ida.
Two Habitat Areas
Hornocker, a University of Idaho professor who has studied lions in Idaho, New Mexico and in Yellowstone National Park, said he would spend five years tracking the lions in two habitat areas, one in the pine forests of the Sierra and the other in the coastal mountains of Southern California.
By attempting to capture all the lions in those areas and fit them with collars equipped with radio transmitters, Hornocker said, he would develop detailed information about the size of the populations, the ages of the lions, their reproductive rates and their effects on species on which they prey, such as deer.
Negri said her organization would pay for Hornocker’s $2-million study if the Fish and Game Commission accepted it in lieu of a hunting season. Department of Fish and Game Director Jack Parnell said he would welcome Hornocker’s study but not as a replacement for the proposed hunt.
“If the Fish and Game Commission accepts our proposal, then we will fund that,” Negri said. “If they accept the study and the hunting season, it will be nearly impossible to fund the study. Most of the efforts will go into probably stopping the proposed hunt.”