Wilson Seeks to Lift Cougar Protections : Wildlife: Governor cites frequent attacks in signing bill to put the issue before voters. Environmentalists accuse him of scare tactics in trying to reopen hunting.


Citing increasingly frequent attacks by mountain lions, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill Thursday asking voters to repeal special protections they enacted five years ago to spare the animals from hunters.

The action--which must be ratified by voters in the March primary election--drew immediate criticism from the conservationist Mountain Lion Foundation and the Sierra Club as a use of "scare tactics" designed to restore the hunting of lions for sport.

Wilson's approval also seemed certain to reignite the emotional campaign waged in 1990 over Proposition 117, which gave the lions protected status.

Wilson cited the mountain lion as a "symbol of California's rugged wildlife," but said two fatal attacks on women last year and other lion incidents he described as occurring at a "rate of nearly one per day" are reasons enough to repeal the protections.

"It is our obligation to do whatever we can to increase the margin of safety for citizens who might be threatened by lions," the governor said in a statement announcing the signing of the bill (SB 28) sponsored by state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay).

Leslie's proposal, a similar version of which was killed last year in the Legislature, would repeal the voter-enacted ban on sport hunting of lions. But the bill fell short of declaring an open season on the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars in the state.

Instead, the measure gives the state Fish and Game Department the authority to develop management plans for lions, just as it does for other non-endangered animals, including deer and bears.

In parts of the state where the lion population is deemed "overabundant," the agency would designate zones for their removal. Peace officers, game wardens and unspecified "designees" of the department would be authorized to kill mountain lions in the zones.

But J. William Yeates, of the lion foundation, said designee "is a euphemism for hunter. Designee was amended into the bill to replace the term hunter ." He said the bill also would authorize the killing of mountain lions for eating other animals.

He said backers of the repeal campaign, including cattle and sheep ranchers, hunter organizations and various business interests, will do "everything to disguise the reality that what they are really going to do is open up hunting of mountain lions."

A moratorium on hunting mountain lions was established in 1972, but since then their populations have exploded, Fish and Game officials say. The sleek cats no longer roam only the vast wilderness of California, but have increasingly become familiar hunters in swiftly expanding suburban neighborhoods.

Wilson cited the deaths of two women joggers who were killed by cougars last year. Fish and Game officials said there have been six cougar attacks on humans in the last five years in California. Additionally, there were 322 attacks on livestock and pets last year, they said.

Currently, Proposition 117 can be amended only by a fourth-fifths vote of the Legislature, a rare occurrence, or by voters in a statewide election. In this case, the Leslie bill would affect the law by allowing the Legislature to make changes to lion hunting by a majority vote.

Proposition 117 outlaws the hunting of mountain lions for sport, but permits the killing of cougars if they menace livestock or are considered an "imminent threat" to humans.

In another action, Wilson also signed legislation by state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Van Nuys) that gives the Department of Corporations an extra $1.4 million for increased regulation of health maintenance organizations.

The industry has come under fire from enrolled members, who say that health maintenance organizations are insensitive to dealing with their complaints.

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