Half of all fatal mountain lion attacks reported in the United States and Canada during the last century have occurred in the past 20 years, and reports of nonfatal attacks have increased during that time as well, according to figures compiled by an Orange County-based researcher.
The findings, contained in the quarterly report prepared by Paul Beier, project leader of the Orange County Cooperative Mountain Lion Study, are the results of what is thought to be the first attempt to document fatal and nonfatal cougar attacks in the two countries.
"Attacks on humans appear to have increased markedly during the last two decades, during which mountain lion density and recreational use of wilderness areas have also increased," Beier wrote in the report.
Five fatal attacks, killing a total of six people, occurred between 1890 and 1970, Beier said. Three of the five fatal attacks since 1970 occurred in British Columbia (in 1971, 1976 and 1988), one was in New Mexico (1974) and one occurred last year in Montana, he said.
Of 37 documented nonfatal attacks, 23 occurred since 1970, Beier said, cautioning that some nonfatal attacks decades ago probably went unreported or unrecorded.
"I'm pretty sure I got all the fatals," said Beier, who has been culling old newspaper clippings and wildlife department files from states and provinces across North America. "I'm sure I missed some of the (older) nonfatals, though. . . . They might not have gotten into the news back then."
Curiously, many of the recent reports of attacks were in British Columbia and particularly on Vancouver Island, where half of all mountain lion attacks have occurred, Beier said.
Mountain lion hunting is permitted in the western Canadian province, he said.
In California, where cougar hunting has been banned since 1972, the number of attacks is too small to suggest a trend, Beier said.
The only fatal attacks documented in California occurred in 1890, when a small boy outside his home in Siskiyou County was reportedly killed and fed upon by a pair of pumas, and in 1909, when two children and a woman were attacked in a stream in Santa Clara County. All three people suffered only minor injuries, but the woman and one child died of rabies attributed to the attack.
The only other attacks reported in California occurred in 1986 in Orange County's Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, where two small children were badly mauled in separate incidents but survived.
Those attacks, along with an increase in reported cougar sightings, prompted the county and state to commission a study of the mountain lion population in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Currently, the project team is monitoring the movements of eight female lions and one male.
Californians will vote Tuesday on an initiative that would ban mountain lion hunting and mandate the expenditure of at least $30 million per year for wildlife habitat acquisition. Opponents of the measure say that there are too many lions in the state and that hunting could help control local populations; proponents claim that the animals control their own numbers and that increased reports of cougar sightings in recent years are the result of human incursion into cougar territory.
The latest quarterly report also says that two of every three lions tested statewide showed evidence of having carried plague bacteria. Statewide, 23 of 36 pumas tested positive for plague-bacteria antibodies, while two of three Orange County lions showed the same result.
Beier said he was "kind of startled" by the news that cougars carried plague. But he said state health officials told him that it is "extremely common" for carnivores to contract the bacteria, and that the lions show no signs of actually having the disease.
As for humans contracting the disease from lions, Beier said there would be "lots more to worry about" if they came in close contact with the animals.
Orange County vector ecologist Rudy Geck said the lions could have picked up the bacteria by eating rodents, ground squirrels or other common plague-carriers anywhere in their vast range, but he has found no signs of plague-infested animals in any of the county's backcountry parks.