A mountain lion's fatal mauling of a hiker at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in December has rekindled a heated public debate about whether the big cats roaming California should be hunted, managed or left alone.
The debate, pitting animal lovers against hunters and the sentiments of urban residents against those of rural residents, centers on whether a state ballot measure to save the cougars has left the public vulnerable to an increasingly aggressive population of the predators.
"Mountain lions and humans are on a collision course, and current law prevents us from responding," state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) said.
Leslie, along with Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway), has submitted a bill asking the Legislature to put a measure on the ballot that would change Proposition 117, which was passed in 1990.
The new measure would allow Department of Fish and Game officials to manage mountain lions as they do other wild animals to protect people and livestock. It would also permit the Legislature by a majority vote to allow hunting of mountain lions. Under Proposition 117, hunting can only be approved by a four-fifths majority in the Legislature, a virtual impossibility.
A bill by Assemblyman David Knowles (R-Placerville) would go even further: it would ask voters to repeal Proposition 117 and immediately permit hunting.
The bills are vigorously opposed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, major sponsor of Proposition 117.
"They're using scare tactics, and concerns about public safety, to get back to trophy-hunting for the friends from the National Rifle Assn. and hunting groups," foundation Executive Director Mark Palmer said.
The foundation prefers a bill by Assemblyman Dominic Cortese (D-San Jose) that would leave Proposition 117 intact and create a lion-sighting hot line for people who feel threatened. The hot line would allow wildlife officials to issue an immediate permit for hunting any aggressive or dangerous mountain lion.
Proposition 117, endorsed by voters 52% to 48%, gives the mountain lion special protected status exceeding that of wolves, bears, deer and other wild animals. The Fish and Game Department routinely manages the population of other animals by thinning their numbers, relocating them or reducing their food source, but the department has no such flexibility with mountain lions.
Mountain lion bills were submitted in the last session but died in committee. The topic has gained greater political momentum since the Dec. 10 death of Iris Kenna at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park 40 miles east of San Diego, and the mauling death in April of a jogger in the Auburn State Recreation Area 45 miles northeast of Sacramento.
Goldsmith's district includes Cuyamaca Rancho State Park; Leslie and Knowles represent the Auburn area. Cortese has been chairman of the Assembly's Water, Wildlife and Parks Committee.
Along with the two deaths, there have been incidents of aggressive lions stalking people and attacking other animals in recent years. One of the latest incidents occurred two weeks ago in Ventura County, when a mountain lion killed a 75-pound dog that was on its master's porch in Fillmore.
Proposition 117 outlawed sport hunting of mountain lions but allows permits to be issued for the destruction of an individual lion if it is determined to be dangerous to people or livestock. Six mountain lions, including the one that killed the hiker, have been shot and killed in the area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the last 18 months.
As legislators consider whether to endorse any of the bills, the residents of Descanso, a tiny community on the edge of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the Cleveland National Forest, remain edgy about the cats in their midst.
Support for Proposition 117 was strongest in urban areas where mountain lions are scarce, and weakest in rural areas where mountain lions are more plentiful.
Gary Abbamonte, owner of Descanso Junction Restaurant, said he has received anonymous hate calls since being quoted in the press demanding that something be done about the mountain lions in the park.
"Mostly it's just attempted intimidation from environmentalists and animal lovers telling me to shut my mouth, which isn't going to happen," he said. "I told one woman that I'd be glad to bring some mountain lions to live in her neighborhood."