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EMERGENCE OF COUGARS STIRS DEBATE IN CALIFORNIA

The West is still wild.

From California's coastal forests to its towns and high country, humans are running into mountain lions so often the state has begun cougar "boot camps" to train wardens about the ways of one of nature's finest killing machines.In California, the big cats have killed two people and wounded several in the past year. Others have escaped. As recently as Tuesday, a game warden near Santa Barbara shot and killed a mountain lion that had attacked a dog.

The increased encounters are attributed to humans' increasing insistence on living and playing in the wilderness, a hunting ban that has allowed the cougars' numbers to grow and perhaps greater boldness on the animals' part.

Cougars haven't been hunted for sport since the 1960s because of a series of moratoriums by the Legislature, followed by a voter-approved ban in 1990.

Now some people are demanding that the big cats be hunted to reduce their numbers. State lawmakers are divided, however. In the meantime, the Department of Fish and Game is under pressure to protect both humans and mountain lions.

"I think the issue is more emotionally charged now than it ever has been," department researcher Lorna Bernard said.

Bernard was among the experts who learned some of the tracking skills of the Old West this month at the department's first Mountain Lion Boot Camp. The participants lived for several days in tents in the Tahoe National Forest, 130 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The state biologists and wardens who took part are the people who respond when mountain lions are reported.

When a cougar kills or wounds people in California, the state calls in hunters to track and kill the animal. Mountain lions also can be killed if they destroy private property, such as livestock. More than 130 were killed last year.

At the boot camp, the participants' schooling included studying cougar tracks to learn an animal's age, sex, weight, direction and pace. Students also measured teeth in a cougar skull, since the bite pattern can reflect size and age.

They also studied the damage inflicted by a cougar on its victims. Mountain lions attack from the back, biting the neck or using one of their front legs to twist the neck until it breaks. Cougars often drag their kills and partially bury them, returning to eat them later.

"One good track is all I ask," said professional hunter Dave Fjelline, who was hired as an instructor at the first boot camp. Fjelline used his dogs to track a cougar and drive it up a tree. The group studied the cat, then let it go.

California has an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars. Fish and Game received 350 reports of encounters between mountain lions and humans in 1994, up 20 percent from the year before.

"Lions live in probably half of the state of California. There's more people, and there's more lions," said Doug Updike, a department biologist.

The state recorded no cougar attacks on humans between 1910 and 1986. But since 1990, at least eight were reported, two of them fatal: A woman was killed while walking in a state park in San Diego County in December, and a jogger died in a state park near Sacramento in April 1994.

Nanse Browne, a Carmel Valley woman who stared down a mountain lion and escaped harm, calls the cats "serial killers" that should be thinned out. She formed Lion Watch, a support group for cougar victims.

But the Mountain Lion Foundation says hunting is not the solution. The group is fighting bills in the Legislature to lift the hunting ban. It favors using dogs to drive mountain lions away from urban areas.

Fish and Game says the ban hinders it from managing the cougar population.

As encounters grow more frequent, wildlife specialists worry that cougars are losing their fear of humans.

"At this point, a lot of our biologists are shaking their heads and saying there really is an increase in these attacks," Bernard said. "They can't all be attributed to more people. Lions seem to be becoming more bold. Why? Nobody knows."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Watching the mountain lion

California wardens received 350 reports of mountain lion sightings last year, up 20 percent from 1993. Following two deaths and several injuries in recent years, wardens are being trained to respond to sightings.

Mountain lion

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Species: Felis concolor

Mountain lions may not be hunted in California, but they can be killed if they threaten humans or destroy livestock. More than 130 were killed that way last year.

Also known as pumas or cougars, mountain lions live in about half the state of California. They range from Canada to South America.

Generally inhabit mountainsides, forests, swamps and grasslands.

Grows to 3 1/4 to 5 1/4 feet (1 to 1.6 meters) long; its tail adds another 33 inches (85cm).

Ordinarily eats deer, hares and rodents.

SOURCE: Mcmilan Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia