Judge Cancels Cougar Hunt, Says Impact Is Uncertain

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge here on Monday canceled what was to be the first mountain lion hunting season in 16 years, ruling that state Fish and Game officials had failed to fully consider the consequences of the proposed kill.

In a ruling lauded by environmentalists, Judge Lucy McCabe said the Fish and Game Commission did not address a wide range of issues, from the impact of recent forest fires in California on the mountain lion population to how the predators' deaths would affect their prey, deer and wild horses.

"It's not there," McCabe said of the commission's attempt to analyze the effects of the proposed hunt.

The ruling, resulting from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, ended the commission's hope to salvage the final six weeks of a proposed 79-day season ending Dec. 31 and threatens plans for a season next year.

"I don't see how they can have a season this year," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Denis D. Smaage, who represented the commission.

Smaage intends to urge the commission to appeal the decision, in the hope that a higher court ruling would solidify rules under which hunting seasons would be conducted. But he said a state appellate court probably would not agree to hear the case until next year--and might not decide it until well into a 1988 season.

Impact Report Ordered

In a tentative ruling last month, McCabe ordered the commission to perform a cumulative environmental impact report. The commission responded by holding a new hearing to address broader issues.

But McCabe said Monday that the state fell short once more by issuing new findings that were an "absolute pro forma rechurning" of the previous effort.

McCabe said the commission apparently did not address an issue raised in an April letter by the National Park Service warning of adverse effects on cougars that live in national parks such as Sequoia and Lassen but range into unprotected areas where hunting would be allowed.

Gov. George Deukmejian opened the way for mountain lion hunting last year by vetoing legislation that would have extended a ban on the sport that dated back to 1972.

The renewed hunt drew backing from sportsmen who said that deer herds were being depleted and ranchers who said livestock were being killed. Cougar attacks on two children in Orange County fueled the support, though no hunting was to have been allowed there.

In April, the Fish and Game Commission, concluding that the cougar population had grown to 5,100 from a low of 2,400 in 1972, approved a 79-day hunt. More than 3,000 people entered the lottery to be among 190 to win the right to kill a mountain lion. Smaage said the state most likely would refund the fee of $80 to the hunters.

"It's a great day for all wildlife," said Sharon Negri of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation.

If upheld on appeal, McCabe's ruling could be broadened to require similar long-term analysis on the hunting and fishing seasons of many game animals, from deer to bear, Negri predicted.

As it is now, the commission does not perform such analyses in authorizing hunting or fishing seasons.

Negri said that in order to perform a complete study of a mountain lion hunt, the commission would have to analyze the impact on a county-by-county basis, and that "will take months if not years to do."

"I think it is real questionable whether we can have a hunting season next year," she said.

Smaage, noting that criticism of the commission's decision has struck deep in the agency, told the judge that he was concerned about a "public perception" that the game officials were not protecting the animals. He maintained that officials based their decision on "very substantial evidence."

"The commission really is trying," Smaage said. " . . . They're not saying, 'Go away, don't bother me.' "

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