clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

COUGARS ARE SPOOKING CALIFORNIA SUBURBANITES

Lori Proctor's children turn the radio way up when they play in the back yard, and they practice how to avoid looking like lunch to a mountain lion.

That has been the case ever since Proctor's 8-year-old son spotted a cougar near the rose bushes earlier this summer in the well-to-do neighborhood of Blackhawk, 20 miles due east of San Francisco at the foot of rugged Mount Diablo.It was one of a slew of such sightings in what one wildlife official calls the "year of the lion."

"I'm telling you, I'm getting them every day," said Brian Hunter, regional director for the state Department of Fish and Game. "One in Lake County, a couple in Sonoma County, one in Marin, Napa, Contra Costa County, Monterey, San Luis Obispo. . . . "

All the calls say, "There's a cougar down in some urban area and people are upset about it," Hunter said.

In the first fatal cougar attack in California in more than 80 years, 40-year-old Barbara Schoener was killed in April while jogging in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 45 miles northeast of Sacramento. An 82-pound mountain lion pounced on her from behind. Trackers hired by the state killed the animal a week later.

Drought and man's encroachment on the wilderness are forcing mountain lions deeper into the suburbs of San Francisco and Sacramento.

Sightings in populated areas have come from mountain bikers on Mount Tamalpais north of here, residents of an apartment complex near Sacramento, motorists, and Proctor and her neighbors, among others.

Proctor, her family and visitors watched from upstairs July 1 while a mountain lion a few feet from her fence line stretched, then sauntered into a neighbor's yard on her cul-de-sac. The house cat on her deck below clawed to get in the house.

Proctor now has children blast the radio while playing outside, and her 4-, 6- and 8-year-olds know to make eye contact, stand tall and back up if they encounter a cougar. Cougars are said to regard a person who turns and runs as prey.

"It's pretty clear, since I do have three young children and live on a court with 22 kids," Proctor said. "I want the thing out of my yard."

But Hunter said voter passage of a 1990 proposition protecting mountain lions has made his department "toothless tigers."

California had mountain lion hunters on staff and paid bounties to private hunters up until the early 1960s. Legislators stopped the private hunting in the early 1970s, when one estimate put the mountain lion count at just 600. The latest state estimate, in 1986, put the count at 5,000.

Of the seven mountain lion attacks on humans reported in California since 1890, five have occurred since 1988, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation of Sacramento.

"The pre-1960s effort was kill them on sight and you get paid for the ears," Hunter said. Now, "there's nothing that can be done," he said. "You leave them alone and they're fully protected."

The law still allows specific cougars to be killed when they are a threat to people or livestock. But a homeowner must contact the Fish and Game Department, and the agency must deem the animal a legitimate danger before sending an officer out to kill it.

About 100 mountain lions a year are shot for preying on stock, Hunter said.

Legislators will be asked next year to let voters decide whether they want to lift the ban on private hunting.

"Sad to say, but it may be it would take two more, three more people eaten before I can get a change in the law," said state Sen. Tim Leslie, who introduced lion hunting legislation this year and plans to try again in 1995.

But Hunter and Mark Palmer of the Mountain Lion Foundation, which pushed for ban on hunting, said hunting hasn't stopped cougar attacks in other Western states and wouldn't in California, either.

"You want hunters to go running around the East Bay with a pack of dogs?" Palmer asked. "I mean, what are we gaining?"