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Hunting Mountain Lions Is Fjelline’s Job, and He’s Proud of It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave Fjelline makes his living hunting mountain lions. In California. Legally.

That alone sets him apart from the state’s 30 million other citizens, even if his lean, flinty-eyed, red-suspender look of the frontiersman didn’t.

Nodding toward his sidekick, Cliff Wylie, Fjelline says: “You’re looking at the two individuals that have treed more lions in California (than anyone else) . . . and I’ve never seen a fat lion hunter yet, so it can’t be too easy.”

Their business card reads: “Lions caught on order. Fjelline and Wylie.”

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Fjelline, 39, works under contract to the Department of Fish and Game in its lion research program. Using trained dogs, he tracks lions by instinct and paw prints, trees them, tranquilizes them and fits them with radio telemetry collars to track them, so the DFG can document their movements and numbers.

“I’ve worked at it for 20 years, and I’m still learning every day,” Fjelline said while working the Tejon Ranch recently. “We’ve got lions up here that we can’t catch.”

Wylie interjected: “You’re doing pretty good if you catch a lion in two weeks.”

Fjelline said: “Lion hunting is probably the roughest hunting endeavor there is. A very select few people will ever have the opportunity to see a lion unless they hire somebody with the ability to put them in that position.

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“It takes three to five years, starting with (training) the hounds. When we get the easy ones, we write ‘em down, because it doesn’t happen often.”

In Western states, lion hunting is illegal only in California, and has been since 1972.

But Fjelline says: “We’ve got more lions than any other state or (Canadian) province. We’ve identified densities of six to 10 lions per 100 square miles where the prey base (primarily deer) is there. Three is good.”

But even if lion hunting were legalized, the take would be limited. “Most of the old (hunters) that had the capabilities have grown old and died,” Fjelline said. “Not too many of us left anymore.”

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And now Prop. 117--the California Wildlife Protection Act, or “mountain lion initiative"--threatens Fjelline’s vocational future.

“In those full-page ads, they talk like I’ve got froth coming from my lips and I’m ready to blast anything that moves,” Fjelline said. “They’re trying to outlaw a way of life and hoodwink us into believing it’s the thing to do, when it’s been acceptable for 500,000 years. Here in the last 15 years, all of a sudden we’re supposed to change.

“My livelihood depends on the perpetuation of the lion as a species.”

Killing, Fjelline said, is not the thrill.

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“I’ve probably caught 250 or 300 lions and I’ve only had to kill 20, and those were on depredation. It was dictated that they would be killed. I treed 35 lions before I ever killed one. I would like to kill a lion. It would be for consumption, and it would be like a trophy. One lion is all I’d like to have.

” . . . Why should we elevate the lion to such a plateau? We’re putting a value on a separate life form. If we’re gonna be concerned about wildlife, they should all be treated equal until they’ve demonstrated the need to elevate ‘em to a higher position. Nowhere in California where we’ve looked have we documented a situation where there had to be any concern for the lions. It’s been the direct opposite--an adverse effect they’ve been having on the prey base population, be it deer or livestock or dogs or cats. If the deer had a vote or the ability to shoot a gun, there wouldn’t be too many lions left.

“These preservationists, in no way, shape or form have they ever submitted any documentation to substantiate any of their allegations. They don’t exist. The only credibility they’re getting now is in trying to discredit anybody else’s information . . . if it runs counter to their ideology or emotional stance. They don’t want anything killed. The total preservationist has no place in modern ecology. He’s giving ecology a black eye. They give a certain segment of the population a guilt complex about our impact on the environment. (But) controlled, statistically backed-up regulated hunting is not detrimental to a population. Done right, it can be beneficial.”

Fjelline has hunted mountain lions all over the state. From a single track, he can tell the size and sex of an animal and make a calculated guess on where it’s going and what it had for dinner.

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“There are some areas in California where the lion has no influence whatsoever,” he said. “There are (other) areas where the lion is a problem. Orange County is one. Inyo (the Eastern Sierra) is developing into another.”

Fjelline fears his day will end if Prop. 117 passes, although depredation permits will still be allowed.

It’s the loss of part of the hunting ethic that bothers him.

“I’d be the first to stand in front of a lion to stop hunting if somebody proved it was detrimental to the species,” he said. “If we were American Indians and we hunted lions, there wouldn’t be anybody touching us, just like the Eskimos with the whales. I’ve evolved into what I am and I’m proud of it. I have no problem with it. They have a problem with it. Maybe they’re not happy with who they are.

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“I’m proud of my heritage, proud that we’ve got these canine teeth. The whole population is turning into a spectator population. Yeah, we could outlaw lion hunting forever, and I’d be a spectator. I prefer being a player.”


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