Life can be harrowing for mountain lions in southern California. Rat poisons in the prey they eat can sicken or kill them. Development and wildfires have whittled away their habitat. Hemmed in by roads and freeways, they risk death crossing them. But staying in their home ranges means inbreeding or lethal fights with other cougars (as they are also called) over territory.
And behaving like the apex predators that they are can also get them a death sentence — as was the case with mountain lion P-56 after he killed a dozen of a Camarillo property owner’s sheep and lambs. Hunting of mountain lions in the state has been banned since 1990, but property owners can get so-called depredation permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to kill a mountain lion that has killed pets or livestock.
A request to kill one of the cougars in the particularly fragile population of the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains has to clear the higher bar of the department’s “three strikes” policy. After a first attack and then a second one by a mountain lion, a property owner must take steps to better secure the animals and deter the lion. But after a third attack, a property owner can obtain a depredation permit. According to state officials, P-56, a 4- or 5-year old male, is believed to have killed the sheep and lambs over the course of two years despite multiple measures taken to deter him. After the owner requested the depredation permit, the lion was killed in late January.
In 2019, Fish and Wildlife issued 194 depredation permits, resulting in the deaths of 67 lions across the state. P-56 was the first radio-collared mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains killed under a depredation permit.
And, we hope, he will be the last. The death of P-56 leaves only one collared adult breeding male mountain lion that the National Park Service is tracking in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Park Service study is following a total of 14 mountain lions mostly across the Santa Monica Mountains, the Simi Hills, and the Santa Susanas. (P-22 is in Griffith Park and another lion has roamed as far north as Santa Barbara.)
Biologists know there are other mountain lions in these areas that they haven’t collared, but the population in southern California faces so many dangers that it could become extinct in little more than a decade if protections aren’t put in place, according to the nonprofit Mountain Lion Foundation, one of two organizations that petitioned the state to list the population as threatened. It makes no sense to be spending millions of dollars on wildlife crossings to help mountain lions thrive and, at the same time, giving the OK for them to be killed.
Having your livestock or pets slaughtered by mountain lions is devastating. But killing one predator won’t solve the problem. Another mountain lion could move into that territory and prey upon livestock. And rarely do officials (or property owners) know for sure that the animal killed was the repeat offender — although lions tend to be repeat attackers when they’ve found a relatively easy spot to prey upon. (In this case, it’s fairly certain that P-56 is responsible for all or most of the livestock slaughter.)
Less than a month after P-56 was killed, there are hopeful signs that protections for mountain lions will increase. At a meeting Friday of the state Fish and Game Commission, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to say that there may be a scientifically valid basis for listing mountain lions in Southern California and the Central Coast as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, and that the commission should consider doing so.
Meanwhile, the department has just extended into the Central Coast the three-strikes rule for mountain lion depredation permits.
Los Angeles City Councilmen Paul Koretz and David Ryu have proposed that the city support or sponsor state legislation or administrative action to end depredation permits of mountain lions and establish an indemnity fund to compensate anyone who loses an animal to a mountain lion. It’s unclear what that would cost. But Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joseph Edmiston has offered to personally reimburse people who lose animals to a mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains if they do not pursue a depredation permit. Beyond that, a statewide compensation fund to which people could contribute should be set up.
We expect wildlife officials to intervene when mountain lions, which are usually solitary and reclusive, attack a person. But mountain lions shouldn’t be killed for simply being predators of other animals. Frankly, as people and their animals move closer toward lion habitat, these conflicts are inevitable. And revenge killings are not a real solution.
Even Fish and Wildlife officials have called P-56’s killing “unfortunate.” We have to find other solutions if we want mountain lions to survive.