A killing spree of dozens of sheep and goats by mountain lions in a rural Northern California community has forced ranchers and conservation authorities to push the boundaries between protecting the predatory cat and preserving landowners’ rights.
Over the past week, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife issued several permits to allow ranchers to deter or kill the mountain lions believed to be responsible for the increase in Lake County homicides.
“It is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour situation. This is a perfect habitat for mountain lions. These lions belong there,” said Peter Tira, spokesman for the agency. “At the same time, we try to be as supportive and helpful as possible to property owners.”
The mountain lion problem surfaced Jan. 5 when a property owner in Lower Lake — a town of about 1,000 on the south side of Clear Lake, northwest of Sacramento — asked Fish and Wildlife for “a lethal depredation permit to kill a lion.” dead due to the loss of 23 sheep” the previous night, Tira said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, 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 owner of the property was instead given a non-lethal robbery permit, which allows for the use of deterrents and some hazing, including the use of dogs to scare away the lions.
“We try to resolve the conflict before any deadly measures are taken,” Tira said.
A Fish and Wildlife report said that by 2021, 90% of the 182 mountain lion depredation permits issued in California were non-lethal. In 1996, the department estimated there were 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in the state. Since 2014, the agency has been working to update the population estimate, according to its website. “Mountain lions are legally classified as a ‘specially protected species,'” the site says.
On January 6, a neighbor of the first owner of the Lower Lake property applied for a looting permit after losing five goats and a sheep. That neighbor also received a non-lethal permit on January 7. That night, mountain lions struck again.
On Sunday, the neighbor applied for a kill permit after losing four additional animals: a goat, a sheep and two lambs. The total herd in Lower Lake was 33 animals.
The lethal permit allowed a Lake County trapper to enter the neighbor’s property and capture and euthanize a young male lion on Monday. Later that day, cameras on the property captured footage of two more lions, and the owner of the property reported a missing lamb the next morning.
The same owner applied for a second lethal permit, which Fish and Wildlife refused, citing improvements to the livestock facilities. The owner had to “strengthen the deterrents and protections,” Tira said.
On Jan. 11, a third-party owner of a property in Kelseyville — a town of about 3,500 residents about 15 miles northwest of Lower Lake — reported losing a goat and chasing a pack of mountain lions off the property.
Officials did not know if these mountain lions were the same ones they had fought in Lower Lake.
With a non-lethal looting permit, the owner of the Kelseyville property placed a camera on the trail. At around 5 a.m. on Thursday, the camera spotted a pair of mountain lions. Trappers with the USDA brought dogs to confuse the big cats.
Over the course of an hour, the dogs got the scent of a female mountain lion and chased 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 doesn’t keep the predators away, authorities are considering other strategies, including capturing and tagging the lions so officials can warn landowners when threats are near. The tags could also help test the effectiveness of the hazing done Thursday.
Moving the lions elsewhere was not considered, Tira said. “Other lions will move in if we take this one out.”