Mike North: Cougar numbers on rise

Mike North
Mike North

Some folks call blacktail deer the "ghosts of the forest" because they're elusive and hard to hunt.

But there's another animal in California that's even more like a phantom, and if you're walking through the woods, they may very well be watching you.

Though you'll probably never see one in the wild, the state's mountain lion population is thriving.

The Department of Fish and Game estimates that the population peaked in 1996 and has stabilized since then with about 4,000 to 6,000 lions in the state. The organization is the first to admit that it's a "crude estimate," since there are no ongoing statewide population studies.

Unfortunately, the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990 made mountain lion hunting illegal in California, which I think is a big mistake.

From my experience, the estimation that the lion population has stabilized isn't accurate.

SEVERAL years back, I was hunting the hill above our deer camp just south of San Jose. That's when I got my first glimpse at a wild mountain lion.

It was sitting in the shadow of an oak looking at me. It was only about 30 yards away, and I could tell it was big.

After a five-minute stare-down, it finally got up and sauntered off.

I didn't think much of it and continued to hunt the area on weekends after that.

By the end of the season, I had seen three separate lions five distinct times, including one that ran out about 15 yards in front of me.

Others in my hunting party experienced similar sightings that year.

For an animal that's said to avoid people, that's a lot of encounters in only a few weekends.

TO ME, that means one thing -- the population is not only going up, but urban sprawl is pushing the big cats closer together. The result is more human encounters with the dangerous animal.

And with hunters out of the mix, lions don't have any natural predators in California. Their numbers can only increase, but we'll probably never have a reasonable estimate on their size because they're not hunted.

We have solid approximations on deer populations because when a hunter harvests one, he fills out a report card on where it was taken, how it was taken and how big it was.

Bear report cards go a step further. Wildlife biologists pull teeth on some bears to determine their age.

The result is a comprehensive description of the animal population in the state. From that the government knows how many hunting tags to issue on various animals to protect their numbers and keep nature in a healthy balance.

We don't have these types of data on cougars because they're not hunted, which is bad for them and us.

Proposition 117 was in part passed to protect the mountain lion population.

I think the best way to protect animal populations is to allow hunters to do their part. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seems to agree.

"The sale of hunting licenses, tags and stamps (are) the primary source of funding for most state wildlife conservation efforts," according to the agency.

Those who don't hunt might not understand how the taking of animals can be good for them, but the outdoorsmen I've been around aren't killers -- they're caretakers of nature.

With the state economy in the can, what could be better than men and women who pay to do more work than any federal agency ever could?

If we allowed the hunting of mountain lions, some of the ambiguity could be taken out of the public's perception of the mysterious creature, and more revenue could be added to the state's coffers.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.