How wildlife officials respond to a livestock killing spree by mountain lions in Northern California
A killing spree of dozens of sheep and goats by mountain lions in a rural community in Northern California has forced ranchers and wildlife authorities to navigate the boundaries between protecting the predator cat and preserving the rights of landowners.
Over the last week, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued several permits to allow ranchers to either scare off or kill the mountain lions believed responsible for the surge in killings in Lake County.
“It’s been a day-to-day, hourly kind of situation. This is perfect mountain lion habitat. These lions belong there,” said agency spokesperson Peter Tira. “At the same time, we’re trying to be as supportive and helpful to property owners as possible.”
The mountain lion problem surfaced on Jan. 5 when a property owner in Lower Lake — a town of about 1,000 residents on the south side of Clear Lake, northwest of Sacramento — asked Fish and Wildlife for “a lethal depredation permit to kill a lion due to the loss of 23 sheep” the previous night, Tira said.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working with Fish and Wildlife, visited the site and confirmed the presence of separate mountain lion tracks that suggested a group of three, possibly a mother and two adolescents.
The property owner instead was approved for a nonlethal depredation permit, which allows for the deployment of deterrents and some hazing, which can include using dogs to scare the lions away.
“We try to resolve the conflict first before any lethal measures” are taken, Tira said.
A report from Fish and Wildlife said that in 2021, 90% of the 182 mountain lion depredation permits issued in California were nonlethal. In 1996, the department estimated that there were 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in the state. Since 2014, the agency has been working on updating the population estimate, per its website. “Mountain lions are legally classified as a ‘specially protected species,’” the site says.
On Jan. 6, a neighbor of the first property owner in Lower Lake requested a depredation permit after losing five goats and a sheep. That neighbor, too, was issued a non-lethal permit on Jan. 7. That night, mountain lions struck again.
On Sunday, the neighbor requested and was granted a lethal permit after the loss of four additional livestock: a goat, a sheep and two lambs. The total livestock toll in Lower Lake was 33 animals.
The lethal permit allowed a Lake County trapper to enter the property of the neighbor and trap and euthanize an adolescent male lion Monday. Later that day, trail cameras on the property captured images of two more lions, and the property owner reported a missing lamb the next morning.
The same property owner requested a second lethal permit, which Fish and Wildlife denied, citing needed improvements in the livestock enclosures. The owner needed to “step up the deterrents and protections,” Tira said.
On Jan. 11, a third property owner, in Kelseyville — a town of around 3,500 residents about 15 miles northwest of Lower Lake — reported losing a goat and chasing a group of mountain lions off the property.
Officials did not know whether these mountain lions were the same as those they had engaged with in Lower Lake.
With a nonlethal depredation permit, the Kelseyville property owner put up a trail camera. Around 5 a.m. Thursday, the camera spotted a pair of mountain lions. Trappers with the USDA brought dogs to haze the big cats.
Over the course of an hour, the dogs got on the scent of a female mountain lion and scared her into a tree. The dogs were then allowed to bark at the lion, a common hazing method.
“Hopefully that mountain lion gets the message: It might not be a good idea to go back there,” Tira said.
If the hazing fails to keep the predators away, authorities are considering other strategies, including trapping and tagging the lions so that officials can alert landowners when threats are near. The tags can also help test the effectiveness of the hazing conducted Thursday.
Moving the lions elsewhere was not under consideration, Tira said. “Other lions will move in if we move these ones out.”
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