Democrat staff writer
Placerville resident Debra McIntire has long been aware of the presence of mountain lions in El Dorado County, but did not expect one to show up in her back yard.
McIntire, 47, spotted the cougar early one recent evening, walking down a dirt driveway adjacent to McIntireÕs property, approximately 20 yards from her niecesÕ and nephewsÕ playset in the back yard.
ÒI was watering the plants and heard some movement up near that tuft of weeds,Ó McIntire said. ÒAnd I could see it just kind of peeking down at me. It had a very long tail. The tail looked even longer than its body.Ó
McIntireÕs first experience with the wild cat came one night prior to her sighting, when she was awakened by a Òstrange growling.Ó After seeing her dog, a pug named Bodie, sitting up at the edge of the bed with his hair on end, McIntire grabbed her flashlight and scanned around outside, but saw nothing.
Debra informed her mother, Doris, who called county Animal Services to report the sighting. Animal Services referred her to the California Department of Fish and Game, which advised her to spray ammonia on the ground where the cougar was spotted. Debra complied with the instructions, but spotted the mountain lion again a few days later.
ÒYou know, itÕs a very scary thing,Ó said Debra, who added that she was upset that the Department of Fish and Game did not send an investigator. ÒWe teach our kids about mountain lions and bears and coyotes up here, and we teach them to be safe and cautious about them, but when weÕre faced with a situation where there is a cougar hanging around not 20 yards from where our children are playing, we need to know when we can rely on the professionals to come in and remove that threat.Ó
The incident raises questions regarding proper protocol with mountain lions, the DFGÕs level of investigation into mountain lion sightings, what constitutes a legitimate threat to the public, and what residents can do to avoid attracting mountain lions onto their property.
Mountain lion facts
Statistically, a human is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. However, in areas such as El Dorado County where residents are living virtually side by side with these animals, extreme caution must be used.
The DFG Website provides a wealth of information on mountain lions, including its ÒKeep Me WildÓ campaign, which aims to inform the public on native California wild animals such as black bears, mule deer, coyotes, wild turkeys, wild pigs and mountain lions. The Website states that determining whether a specific animal is a public safety threat is contingent upon deciding whether there is Òa likelihood of human injury based on the totality of the circumstances.Ó Factors such as behavior and proximity to schools, playgrounds or other public gathering places are considered. This decision is made by the DFG or local law enforcement personnel at the site.
If the animal is deemed to be a public safety threat, a Permit of Depredation is issued, and the animal is removed. The DFG maintains a kill policy with all mountain lions sanctioned to be eliminated, explaining that relocating such a territorial animal, accustomed to traveling great distances, is virtually impossible. It is also impossible to relocate the wild cats to hospitable animal reserves as it confines the animal within an enclosure Ñ entirely contradictory toward its nature, and essentially torments the animal.
Sightings pour in … which are threats?
The big conflict between resident sightings and action taken by the DFG is that of accurate claims. Hundreds of mountain lion sightings are reported to the department each year, but fewer than 3 percent are verified public safety threats.
Dana Michaels, DFG official and primary contact and information officer for Regions 1 and 2, which comprises the North Central Region, including El Dorado, Alpine, Butte and Nevada counties, rationalized the conflict, explaining that it is a matter of percentages and resources.
ÒWe are always concerned with public safety, but the majority of these sightings turn out to not be verifiable public safety threats, and in many cases, not mountain lions at all. A lot of calls are a case of mistaken identity. Many people will mistake a house cat or even deer for a mountain lion. Mule deer and mountain lions do have similar-color fur and upon investigation, our wardens or biologists will end up discovering that there was, in fact, no mountain lion at all.
ÒAlso, it may be a case of resources for our department. If we have the majority of our wardens working up at a campground or retreat where there has been a bear breaking into cabins or stealing food from campsites, they wonÕt be able to leave an immediate threat situation and drive to investigate a sighting when less than 3 percent of such sightings are legitimate threats, or accurate reports. The bear is an imminent issue that needs to be taken care of, and while weÕd like to be there to help out for every call that comes in, we just donÕt have the time or people to handle that many calls over our area.
ÒThat being said, public safety is still and will always be our No. 1 priority, and we always encourage residents and visitors to call us or go onto our Website for information and advice,Ó Michaels said.
In rare cases, residents have mistakenly reported raccoons as mountain lions. Marquel Dawson, a young man from Fairfield, claimed he had fought off a mountain lion with a samurai sword in February. After DFG officials investigated the claim, they discovered it was actually a raccoon. The story initially received national attention until it was dismissed as a case of mistaken identity, while others believed the whole thing to be a hoax.
Fatal attacks do occur
Since 1890 there have been 16 verified attacks on humans by mountain lions Ñ six of them fatal. Many Californians remember the 1994 attack on Barbara Schoener, a Placerville resident who was killed on a trail near Cool.
Attacks on mountain lions against humans, while rare, are cause for awareness, and the DFG ÒKeep Me WildÓ campaign continues to inform the public with helpful tips on avoiding contact with mountain lions, what to do when confronted with a mountain lion, and what to look for in deciding whether a mountain lion is an immediate threat to public safety.
ÒIf you see a mountain lion a mile away on a ridge Ñ that is not enough evidence to cause an investigation,Ó Michaels said. ÒItÕs unfortunate, but with as many false calls as we get, you need to essentially prove that the animal is a threat to public safety. If the animal is exhibiting any strange behavior, or looks to be stalking or pacing back and forth, then that can merit a threat. On the other hand, if there is just an animal you spot out in the wild that is simply there, that does not merit an investigation.
ÒWe also look to see where the animal was spotted, and based on that location Ñ how close it is to schools, public buildings, large groups of people Ñ one of our professionals, either a warden or biologist or guide, can decide whether or not a permit of depredation is required to eliminate the threat.
ÒPeople are more than welcome to contact us with questions and to report sightings Ñ what most of our wardens and biologists will do is ask the caller if they are doing anything to attract that animal to their property. Mountain lion follow deer Ñ so basically anywhere there are deer in California, there will be mountain lions. If youÕre attracting the deer, whether it be with certain plants or gardens, or water on the property Ñ you will be attracting the mountain lions as well.Ó
It is never a bad idea to call Fish and Game when unsure whether an animal is a threat to public safety. Additionally, the DFG strongly advises residents that, when faced with immediate danger from a wild animal, dial 911 without hesitation.
On June 5, 1990, California voters passed Proposition 117, prohibiting the sport hunting of the California mountain lion and creating the Habitat Conservation Fund. Under the auspices of Prop. 117, the California mountain lion became a specially protected mammal. It is illegal to take, injure, possess, transport, import or sell any lion or any part or product of a lion.
Since 1990 the Department of Fish and Game has granted 301 permits of depredation in El Dorado County, making it the second highest permit receiving county in the state, behind Mendocino. Since 2000 the DFG has issued an average of roughly a dozen permits per year. For more information on the laws regarding permits of depredation, contact the Department of Fish and Game.
The Department of Fish and GameÕs Regional Office for areas including El Dorado County is located at 1701 Nimbus Road in Rancho Cordova. The phone number is 916-358-2900. Information on the Keep Me Wild campaign can be found at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/keepmewild/index.html and additional resources are available at http://www.dfg.ca.gov.
E-mail Brandon Anicich at [email protected]