CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / WILDLIFE PROTECTION ACT : Initiative Would Prohibit Cougar Hunt, Buy Habitat


Not in 18 years has a sport hunter legally shot and killed a California mountain lion--a secretive, nocturnal predator that inhabits terrain as disparate as the eastern desert, the Sierra Nevada’s snowy slopes and the coastal oak woodlands of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In 1987, the state Department of Fish and Game tried to reintroduce limited hunting of the animals, whose population statewide was estimated to have grown to about 5,100. But the plan has been repeatedly blocked by mountain lion advocates in court, with judges ruling that the state’s environmental impact studies were inadequate.

This June, California voters will decide the issue for themselves: Proposition 117, or the California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990, would declare mountain lions to be a specially protected animal and prohibit sport hunting of the big cats--also called cougars, pumas or panthers--once and for all.

But the so-called mountain lion initiative is not strictly a battle between hunters and non-hunters.


The proposal has a second, perhaps more far-reaching component: It would mandate spending $900 million over the next 30 years to acquire and restore wildlife habitat, with equal amounts to be spent in Southern and Northern California.

Roughly a third of the money would be spent for mountain lion and deer habitat, leaving the rest for the purchase of rare and endangered species habitat, wetlands, and riparian and aquatic habitat.

“We wanted to focus not only on mountain lion hunting, but the broader issue as well,” said J. William Yeates, a Sacramento attorney and board member of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation, one of the groups that drafted the initiative. “And the real issue in California is loss of habitat.”

The law would guarantee $50 million over the next 10 years for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, some of which must be spent in the Santa Susana Mountains and Santa Clarita Woodlands. Other amounts are guaranteed for Monterey County, the California Tahoe Conservancy and the State Coastal Conservancy.

The state Wildlife Conservation Board would receive the bulk of the annual $30 million--$16 million in each of the first 10 years of the program, $21 million a year thereafter.

Conservation groups such as the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League have endorsed the initiative. Recreation-oriented conservation groups--such as the California Wildlife Federation, the California Waterfowl Assn. and Ducks Unlimited Inc.--oppose the measure, as do hunting and ranching groups and many state wildlife biologists.

Not even the initiative’s opponents dispute that habitat destruction is the single greatest threat to California wildlife. And a local population of mountain lions, each of whose home ranges may be more than 100 square miles, needs large chunks of undisturbed habitat to thrive.

But opponents say Proposition 117 locks the state into a rigid habitat acquisition formula that favors the mountain lion and deer--both non-endangered species--at the expense of species that truly need protection.

“There isn’t a wildlife biologist who opposes (the purchase of) habitat,” said Richard Weaver, a retired state wildlife biologist and chairman of the umbrella opposition campaign, Californians for Fair Spending on Wildlife Protection. But Proposition 117, he said, “will raid existing programs for endangered and rare wildlife species for an animal that is neither endangered nor rare. . . . I think we need to identify our most critical needs.”

The initiative would not create any new funding sources. About half of the annual $30 million would come from an unallocated tobacco tax fund established by Proposition 99 two years ago that is currently earmarked for local health programs. Initiative opponents criticize the proposed diversion of this money, but proponents answer that 90% of the unallocated fund will still be available for health programs, and that spending 10% on wildlife habitat is consistent with Proposition 99’s intent.

“Proposition 99 was created in this office,” said Gerald Meral, director of the Planning and Conservation League and manager of the pro-117 campaign, the California Wildlife Protection Committee. “We served on it, and we were part of a major effort to pass it. Our opponents don’t represent the health community.”

The remainder of the $30 million will come out of existing environmental funds, such as the state’s environmental license plate fund and tax check-off fund for rare and endangered species, and any future state bond issues that include money for wildlife habitat--such as the Forests Forever and Big Green initiatives being proposed for the November ballot.

Some state environmental funds are already being used for habitat acquisition and would count toward the initiative’s annual requirement. Meral, in fact, says that Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposed 1990-91 budget earmarks enough money for habitat acquisition and would be unchanged if the initiative passes. Opponents, however, say that might not be true in future years.

“The department is concerned that (the initiative is) too restrictive, and we couldn’t be responsive to dynamic and changing needs,” said Terry M. Mansfield, Fish and Game Department wildlife manager.

While they disagree on the best use of environmental funds, wildlife biologists on both sides of the issue generally agree that limited hunting would pose no threat to the state’s mountain lion population. The animals, which can weigh up to 150 pounds at maturity, are legally hunted in 11 Western states and British Columbia and are still thriving.

But initiative proponents say that the mountain lion, as California’s last big predator, deserves special protection.

“There’s something about mountain lions that goes to the hearts and minds of so many people,” said Sharon Negri, director of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation. “People are surprised to hear there are mountain lions in the hills in and around some of our largest urban areas . . . and they just like to know they’re there, something not packaged, bottled and canned, but something wild and free.”

Hunters view the animal with less romanticism. And some ranchers see cougars as serial killers, capable of slaughtering more calves, sheep or goats in a single night than they could possibly eat in weeks.

The initiative would restrict, but not ban, so-called depredation kills--the hunting of cougars that pose a danger to human life or livestock.

But cougar hunting for sport, in which dogs track the animal until it is treed, is strictly a slaughter-for-trophy and should be banned on moral and ethical grounds, initiative backers say.

“Chasing down a lion with a bunch of hounds and blasting it off a tree is pretty punk stuff,” Yeates said.

Statements like that, initiative opponents say, demonstrate the pro-117 camp’s anti-hunting bias and lack of knowledge. State game regulations require that a hunted animal’s meat be used and not wasted. It is true, they say, that the only effective way to hunt the highly elusive cougars is with well-trained dogs, but that success is by no means guaranteed.

“They make it sound as horrendous as possible,” Weaver said. “Only about one time in 20 is it even possible that the mountain lion could be shot.”

By banning hunting, Weaver and other initiative opponents say, the state is robbed of a tool that it could use in effectively managing lion populations.

“The field data suggest that . . . the good habitat is full of lions and they’re moving out into more marginal habitat,” said state wildlife manager Mansfield. “Something’s going on when they show up in a back yard in Yorba Linda, in the garlic fields of Coalinga.”

In 1986, two children were mauled by cougars in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in Orange County--the first documented attacks on humans in California in several decades. Earlier this year in the same general area, a male lion establishing his territory is believed to have killed two lion cubs.

Some biologists theorize that overly dense populations increase the animals’ competition for food and territory, pushing them into more frequent encounters with humans, pets and livestock. Those encounters often lead to legal depredation kills--which have increased markedly in recent years--of the unknowing, wayward animals.

“It’s hard to argue that’s good for their lives,” Mansfield said. “In theory, some amount of sport hunting could be good for the overall health of the animal.”

But initiative proponents, citing research that suggests that attempts to manage lion populations are futile, say the animals don’t need any help from Fish and Game.

“They regulate their own numbers.” Negri said. That’s all part of the evolutionary process.”

Mountain Lion Ranges Proposition 117 on the June ballot would protect the range of California’s mountain lion by purchasing threatened territory. This map indicates the areas where the big cat is now found, including areas that are threatened by urban encroachment. Source: Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation