The response to the recent killing of domesticated animals by one of our resident male mountain lions (Puma concolor) in the exurban wonderland that is the Santa Monica Mountains has prompted a massive public outcry. Over the course of a few short hours one evening over the Thanksgiving Holiday, an adult male mountain lion killed 10 alpacas (Vicugna pacos) on the property of Ms. Victoria Vaughn-Perling near Little Sycamore Canyon Road. The next night he struck a neighboring property near Mulholland Highway and Decker Canyon Road killing a goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) and an additional alpaca. In the immediate wake of those predation events, Ms. Vaughn-Perling sought and quickly received a depredation permit. These permits grants legal permission to track down and kill a mountain lion that threatens people or livestock. Securing a state approval for killing this mountain lion named P45 is essential as mountain lions are a special status (protected) species in the state of California, their routine hunting banned since 1967. A scheduled public hearing slated to be an overview of potential methods and technologies to minimize the probability of mountain lion-livestock interactions quickly evolved into a massive community event.
Predation Brought Attention
My family and I were out of town this Thanksgiving weekend. As we returned to southern California I caught wind of the multiple predation events over the weekend and the suspected involvement of one of the male lions that our National Park Service colleagues have routinely tracked with GPS colors for the past several years (the 45th one actually, hence the “P45” moniker). Needless to say I headed over to the just-announced public hearing this evening with an eye to record the discussion for my university lectures on managing coastal wildlife along the wildlands-urban interface and on general mountain lion management across California. I had no idea this event would turn out to be as massive as it was. I was, of course being an “absent minded professor.” I should clearly have realized the ancient equation of:
Santa Monicas + mountain lions = public/media firestorm
First Signs of Something Unusual
The first sign of something beyond the usual was unfolding at this hearing was the tremendous backup I hit when still about a half mile away from the entrance to Paramount Ranch, the site of the hearing. Normally this stretch of Cornell Road in Agoura Hills is pretty car-free this time of night (the hearing was slated to begin at 7pm). But tonight it was bumper to bumper traffic on both sides of this two lane, country road.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I lost count of the cars after I got up past 200. Walking up to the barn where the hearing was taking place already 15 minutes late, I began passing folks walking BACK to their cars, clearly frustrated by the overflow capacity and the lack of ability to get inside and properly hear the speakers.
While my traffic troubles translated into my missing the very start of the meeting, I have it on good authority that prior to the official start of the event (a welcome by the Superintendent David Szymanski of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area) the meeting kicked off with one concerned attendee seizing the microphone and exhorting the crowd to action to stop the killing of P45 ahead of the formal opening. She would remain at the front of the meeting hall, standing first next to Superintendent Szymanski and then most subsequent speakers with her mobile phone, often filming at very close range (you can see her in some of my videos below…and she would return to the mic during the questions and comment period, still boisterous and full of much fire and brimstone). After a few minutes (as I arrived on scene) some of the crowd turned a bit unruly and started loudly asking for additional audio speakers outside or for the facilitators to turn up the volume of the existing sound system so as to be able to fully hear the discussion going on inside. The Park Service happily complied and cranked up the sound system just before Jeff Sikitch launched into his brief overview of mountain lion natural history and conservation in the Santa Monica Mountains. That improved volume and Jeff’s engaging presentation squelched the burbling unrest and brought the crowd (now at least 350 by my conservative count, with something like 150 of outside in the crisp, 45° F air on this cloudless Wednesday night and unable to squeeze into the jam-packed hearing room) under control for a time with their attention rapt.
A Lion-Friendly Crowd
The tone of meeting was cemented during Jeff’s presentations with several bouts of loud clapping and cheers whenever he would mention wildlife crossings, the natural behavior of the mountain lions, or the fact that these illusive animals rarely interact with humans and generally seek to avoid them at all costs. As the evening would progress and elected officials (e.g. Linda Parks, Ventura County Supervisor) or their proxies (e.g. Tim Pershing from Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s office) joined in the chorus for reasoned management and lion-centric responses to this and related crises the crowd again slowly grew louder and louder, more emboldened with each subsequent speaker. From my vantage outside, the public commentary was constant and clearly one-sided. This crowd was vociferously favoring mountain lion protection and decidedly unhappy about the possibility of one of our remaining terrestrial apex predator in the Santa Monicas being killed.
The crowd’s anger began to climax as Superintendent Szymanski closed the formal presentations and invited the public to chime in with their comments and questions. His imploring the audience to remain respectful and hear all sides on this issue got little traction. The second public speaker (see the video below) tossed out a spark into the psychological kerosene of the room and those that followed were generally content to fan those flames. Clearly many in attendance saw this event as something of a unique opportunity to advocate for wider protections for mountain lions and broader support for general conservation efforts across the region.
The most interesting parts of the public input came when Reid Breitman, the lawyer representing Ms. Vaughn-Perling, the depredation permit-possessing owner of the dead alpacas, and (a few minutes later) a local homeowner spoke in support of killing/removing P45. The crowd was having none of it.
Between the jeers and strong reactions, a possible compromise was at first not well understood. It seemed to take the crowd a minute to realize that the permit holder Vaughn-Perling had agreed to hold off with the hunting down of P45 for tonight, ultimately announcing a press conference on her land tomorrow morning (see below in addition notes). The Park Service and others offered additional help and support, either in design of predator-exclusion structures or funding for such technologies/materials. In short, there seemed to be broad agreement that no one was happy to kill a mountain lion and most content to work towards an equitable compromise that might allow P45 to remain in the Santa Moncias. We should note the landowner had previously lost livestock to mountain lion predation and had subsequently worked with local experts to try to minimize conflicts with the predators (although it is more than fair to say the state of her property was far from an oasis of lion-proofed enclosures, etc.).
Solutions Already Exist
At the risk of sounding a bit pollyanna-ish, we do have existing solutions to keep mountain lions and livestock separated. The best for “containable” livestock are the totally enclosed pens shown below. For wider-roaming livestock the best answer seems to be Anatolian guard dogs (as someone who works in eastern Anatolia, I can attest to these hardcore, shepherding canines…where we work they effectively take on and deter wolf packs).
Historical Overview of Mountain Lion Management in California
There were many questions and (judging by some of the comments and the way those questions were phased from both sides of the issue) a clear lack of understanding about some key aspects of mountain lion natural history. Many of these were addressed by Jeff’s presentation or in my regular mountain lion lecture (see above).
Note: I’ll be updating these over the next few hours when a have a bit more time.
Is it unusual for mountain lions to kill several animals at once?
Are mountain lions a threat to people?
Very rarely if ever. These are wild animals, but these guys strongly avoid people at almost every turn.
Are people a threat to mountain lions?
Of course! Our government just issues a permit to kill P45! In 2015 alone we actively killed 101 mountain lions via depredation permits across the state (many more were killed due to road kill, poisoning, etc.
Is it bad to kill mountain lions?
Generally yes, but we do issue hundreds of depredation permits each year (see above). Killing one is unfortunate, but not necessarily the end of the world. The exception to this general rule of thumb is killing in places like the Santa Monica Mountains where roads greatly restrict the ability of mountain lions (and a whole host of other critters) to disperse into or out of the region. In the Santa Monicas, terrestrial critters need to run a gauntlet of death if they want to get in or out of these road-restricted coastal mountains. See either of my presentations below (a short presentation on our long-term road kill study or one of my longer lectures on road kill):
What is the long-term solution?
Eliminate the isolation of our lions constrained to the Santa Monica Mountains by boosting connectivity with surrounding populations and landscapes (Simi Hills, Los Padres Forest, etc.). The most important component of such a solution would include robust wildlife corridors and wildlife crossings over roadways such as the 101 Freeway. More generally, these animals are threatened daily via the remorseless workings of things we have tacitly allowed and often encouraged: road kill via our spiderweb-like network of roads dicing up their territories, poisoning by second generation rodenticides, and the inevitable lack of genetic diversity of such small populations.
How many mountain lions are there?
In the state of California we don’t have great numbers, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 is a pretty good ballpark estimate. In the Santa Monicas, their numbers will always be in flux, but never more than 12 and more often closer to 6 to 8 (if we include juveniles).
Growing Media Attention
This story seems to be showing no signs of stopping. A few examples are below:
Note: The following updates have been added after my initial posting.
Moving in the Right Direction
Happily Ms. Vaughn-Perling announced she would be indefinitely suspending her efforts to kill P45 on the morning of December 1 (the morning after the hearing). Super cool! The outcry, offers of help and material assistance from agencies and nonprofits, and media attention seem to have succeeded in getting her to modify her position towards and ameliorate her fear of P45. This is great news. Now, the challenge is to stay focused on the issue of proper protection of livestock and pets so as to avoid such potential need to kill lions in the future and work with agencies to streamline the permitting of potential lion-proof fences where appropriate.