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The political spiral of mountain lions in California


Large mountain lion in a tree
Photo credit: Shutterstock

I awoke abruptly to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm. My neck was stiff from sleeping in the front seat of my pickup and I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. As I opened the door, a rush of cool air rolled in and I was awake; the mere three hours of sleep seemed no more than a few seconds long. Jason, Shane and I had arrived at the trailhead late the previous night after a long day at work and a two-hour drive. I woke the others and downed the half empty cup of now cold coffee that was still in the cupholder from last night’s drive. We all made one last check of our gear and donned our heavy packs; we planned on spending the next five days in the backcountry. 

Headlamps glowing, we started up the trail in darkness. Not long into our trek, Shane realized that he had forgotten to change the batteries in his lamp. He turned back to retrieve batteries from the truck and Jason and I pressed on, knowing that he would eventually catch up. It was the Friday before the opener of California’s archery season and we were anxious to set up camp and start looking for deer. The timber began to glow with the rising sun and soon the headlamps were no longer necessary. We continued to grind uphill, anxious to reach the top. But as I looked ahead, I caught movement on the trail. 

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I felt as though I was seeing a ghost. Coming straight down the trail at a mere 40 yards was a mountain lion. He stopped for a moment; our eyes met and I froze. The cat looked almost as surprised as I was and silently tucked into the timber to my left. I watched in awe as he moved to cover behind some deadfall and sat down. I turned to Jason, who was a few steps behind me, and told him that there was a cat 40 yards away, sitting and watching us. He scrambled to get his camera and tried to shoot some video. Almost as quickly and silently as he appeared, he was gone. I caught another glimpse of him as he slinked along parallel to the trail and out of sight. It wasn’t until I could no longer see him that fear set in.

Was he doubling back to flank our back trail? Quickly, my mind went to Shane. I knew that he would be catching up to us soon so we cautiously doubled back to a switchback. I yelled to Shane and heard him respond; he was not that far away. Suddenly, my senses heightened. The hair on my neck stood up again and my heart started to race. I scanned the woods where I had last seen the mountain lion and turned up nothing. I turned to my left and there he was. Now only 20 yards away, the cat was crouched, as if he was stalking me, and poised to chase. I wished that I was carrying my pistol, but it is illegal to carry a firearm while hunting during the archery only season in California. 

Immediately, I began to yell, clanging my trekking poles together and kicking rocks. The thought of removing my pack and grabbing my bow only made me feel more vulnerable. Fortunately, the cat seceded to my challenge and turned, quickly disappearing again. I stood in the trail, shaking with adrenaline; I couldn’t help but feel lucky that the cat had not called my bluff.

Mountain lion hunting is illegal in California

Treed mountain lion in Montana
Treed mountain lion in Montana. Photo credit: 41 Digital

In 1990, a state initiative was passed that made the hunting of mountain lions illegal in California. Proposition 117, dubbed the "California Wildlife Protection Act," was posed as a conservation act that acquired habitat for deer, mountain lions and endangered species. It promised $30 million to be allocated for the preservation of habitat over a 30 year period. On the surface, this is an initiative that even hunters could get behind; however, details of the proposition also would place mountain lions on the "specially protected species list," and the allocation of funds would be taken from both the general state fund as well as the "unallocated account" of the state. In short, this new $30 million fund, called the "Habitat Conservation Fund," would be covered by taxpayers.

Quote about wildlife management in California

For those unfamiliar with California state initiatives, they are essentially propositions approved by state legislature for a public vote. California, being a predominantly liberal state, passed the initiative that leaned heavily on verbiage of conservation of habitat with a 52.42% vote. This placed the mountain lion on the specially protected species list, which would require at 4/5 vote of legislature, or a majority vote of the people, to overturn. 

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) website, "this status and other statutes prohibit the CDFW from recommending a hunting season for lions and it is illegal to take, injure, possess, transport, import, or sell any mountain lion or part of a mountain lion." This includes any lions taken legally in another state. Even lions mounted by a taxidermist are illegal to transport or possess in California. This initiative was backed by the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), an activist group that believes that mountain lions are in peril and that "our nation is on the verge of destroying this apex species upon which whole ecosystems depend." They also state that hunting of mountain lions is "morally unjustified." 

California mountain lion numbers

Conversely, the CDFW website states that "mountain lions are not threatened nor endangered in California. In fact, the lion population is relatively high in California and their numbers appear to be stable. Mountain lions are legally classified as “specially protected species,” [however] “this has nothing to do with their relative abundance and does not imply that they are rare.”" Herein lies the problem: activist groups such as the MLF, who have a special interest of "protecting" wildlife, are preying on the liberal majority's emotion to raise money and using said funds to write state law. 

In doing so, they are handcuffing agencies such as the CDFW, who employ biologists and experts to make decisions on how to manage wildlife effectively. Because of the law that the MLF brought into existence, these biologists and experts are not allowed to apply management strategies to lions. Instead, this decision is left to the emotionally driven and generally ignorant general public. What is extremely comical is a statement gleaned from the MLF’s mission statement that says, "Governments should base decisions upon truthful science, valid data, and the highest common good." The decision to place the mountain lion on the specially protected species list is based on none of these principles.

California mountain lion distribution

California mountain lion distribution. Source:

In 1997, proposition 197 proposed that mountain lions' status as a specially protected species be repealed. It suggested that CDFW "manage mountain lions as it manages mammals that are not rare, endangered [or] threatened," and "implement mountain lion management plan that promotes health, safety, livestock, [and] property protection." In addition, 197 proposed that state legislature change laws about mountain lions with a simple majority vote, rather than a 4/5 vote. Proposition 197 was defeated in a public vote by 58.12%.

Continued below.

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Other species numbers plummet

In 1999, the Sierra (California) Bighorn Sheep population plummeted to approximately 100 animals and was added to the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species List. This designation provoked the 4/5 vote in state legislature to amend the wildlife protection act and allow the management of mountain lions that posed an imminent threat to the dwindling sheep herd. CDFW collared and tracked cats and dispatched those that posed a threat. This cost taxpayers over $250,000. This move was combatted by the MLF that published such statements as, "the management of mountain lions over most of their range continues to be dictated by hunting-driven management philosophies rather than by conservation." 

Special interest groups like the MLF and the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) oppose hunting of any kind, are well organized and well funded. They oppose hunting on the basis of morality and emotion rather than on science. It is well documented that responsible hunting and wildlife management is the most effective conservation model. Where all of the laws and initiatives backed by animal rights activists require taxpayers to foot the bill of conservation efforts, hunting generates revenue to pay for research and habitat conservation. Had the mountain lion not been considered a protected species, CDFW could have approved a depredation hunt on the population of cats that threatened the bighorn. This would have generated revenue via tag sales and cut the cost of paying CDFW personnel to collar and eradicate the problem cats. While activist groups raise money to pass laws that prevent hunting and take the decision making power for wildlife management out of the hands of biologists and state agencies, hunters generate millions in revenue each year for wildlife conservation.

Close up photo of a treed mountain lion in Montana
Photo credit: 41 Digital

According to a study in the Journal of Wildlife Management, 68% of predator caused mortality in California mule deer is the handiwork of mountain lions. With conservative population estimates of mountain lions in California between 4,000 to 6,000 and the constant infringement of human expansion on habitat, the unchecked population of mountain lions pose a threat to ungulates as well as livestock. The MLF would argue that mountain lion populations are naturally controlled by two main factors: first, that they defend a vast home range and that reproduction rates are limited; second, lion populations are naturally balanced proportionately to prey populations and only feed on the weak. Research has yielded conflicting results. According to the June 1989 issue of Forest Research West, a USFS publication, "mountain lions appear to be controlling an already depressed deer herd, and they are apparently not benefiting the population by taking only the weak and old. The density of the lion population is not limited by the need for exclusive territories, and reproduction is continuing within this high-density population." Also, "Livestock losses to mountain lions have become a serious concern of this team. The number of permits to take mountain lions that are killing livestock reached an all-time high in 1988, with 145 issued and 62 lions taken. Neal, Steger, and Bertram (from the study), expect livestock predation to continue at a high level or even increase, and deer to continue to decline in all but the most favorable years." This study was conducted in the late 1980s. The initiative that made mountain lion hunting illegal was passed in 1990.

Anti-hunter power to take down leaders

Daniel Richards Idaho Mountain lion
Daniel Richards' Idaho mountain lion. Photo credit: Western Outdoor News

Another example of the unchecked influence of animal rights activists in California legislature is the case of Daniel Richards, who was ousted from his position as president of the California Fish and Game Commission. Richards came under fire for legally taking a mountain lion on a hunting trip in Idaho. This was all the HSUS needed to boot Richards, a NRA lifetime member and political conservative, who represented sportsmen on the Commission. Petitions were signed and propaganda was spread, resulting in the legislature voting him out as president. The reason given was that he showed poor judgement and did not honor the voters of California who have chosen to protect mountain lions. This was not California's cat, but Richards was an obstacle to the agenda of the activist groups and his legal take of a mountain lion in Idaho was all that was needed to remove him.

Steady spiral of decline

It is prudent to note that predation is not the only issue that declining deer herds face. Fragmentation as well as the loss of habitat are still leading factors; however, the deer herd in California is in a steady decline as the population of predators increase. The ban on hunting mountain lions has taken the decision making power out of the hands of experts on wildlife management and handed it over to the gullible and uninformed public while mountain lion populations continue to grow. In their effort to "effectively ban all hunting," the HSUS and other animal rights groups are working tirelessly to raise funds and implement legislature. This not only alienates sportsmen, but puts other species, including domestic pets and livestock, at risk.

The opposition to sportsmen in California is well organized and well funded. Their time and effort is spent trying to end hunting in California. The case of the mountain lion is a major victory of the special interest groups listed above. When wildlife management is placed in the hands of "environmentalist" organizations and the general voting public, sportsmen and wildlife lose. The only way to combat this trend is for sportsmen to unite in a concerted effort to preserve and restore our heritage. Make no mistake: there are people out there whose goal is to prevent you from hunting and they are gaining ground in our state. We must meet them with equal tenacity if we stand a chance to preserve our wildlife and the heritage that we hold most dear.


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Jean F. - posted 1 year ago on 12-14-2018 03:10:53 am

A year since anyone posted here. I have a strong opinion based on living on native land when I walk through my yard gate in the Tehachapi Pass, one exit from the Mojave arm of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I live in absolute rural America tucked into the traverse mountains where the Tehachapi Mountains meet the southern Sierras. I have never seen a single deer, bear, mountain lion and only 1 Bobcat. I hear coyotes and have rarely seen one. I don't agree with hunters, BLM, biologists, FWS, Wildlife Services for a second that these animals need management. You blood lusting killers who get your kicks out of setting traps and baiting animal then call it a sport or management of wildlife are full of it. All you want are bragging rights to impress your friends and sell pelts to clothiers without paying tax on your extra income. Shooting baited animals must make you feel like real hunters. Want to impress your bar buddies, take those bears and sheep down with nothing but a knife.

Duane S. - posted 2 years ago on 04-10-2017 02:18:48 pm
Etna, california

Ferdinand A. you are the one who needs to wake up. I live, work and travel in the places that these animals live. I can tell you without any reservation that the numbers of LIONS ARE NOT DECLINING! Much to the opposite is true! to the demise of the animals that they prey upon. I can't speak to the big cats of Africa as I have never been. I have seen the the POLITICS AND BLEEDING HEARTS loaded with false information and facts bring the end to livelihoods and communities with a the false and deceitful lies to accomplish a one sided view. DON'T LET THE FACTS CLOUD THE ISSUES. There is no BALANCE. As our populations encroach into the ranges of these animals, with the thousands of animals killed each year by cars on our highways. TO THE REMOVAL OF MANAGEMENT OFFICIALS AND TOOLS, THAT ARE CHARGED WITH OVERSEEING THE BALANCE AND BEING HANDCUFFED BY THE NON-FACT FOLKS, in the ability to manage cats, bears. wolfs or any animal, to include humans have seen the rise of predators and demise of the prey animals.
I don't get all this "EGO" talk. The folks I know hunt from a lifelong tradition. For the FACT that by bing near nature we become closer to it. We hunt as our ancestors did and for the pure primal instinct that this is how we survived and we provide for our families before we became civilized! We that hunt have a better grasp of how these animals live and how we have a bond with them. Our history is directly tied to these animals. If we stop all hunting the animals would be the ones to lose. The predators would consume the prey animals. Their numbers would grow to a point that prey would no longer sustain them. They would starve or die of disease. Before man covered large areas of land the animals could hold their own. That is not true today.

Ferdinand A. - posted 2 years ago on 04-10-2017 11:51:11 am

I’m not anti-gun or a “disneylander” and I don’t eat McDonald’s. There is something called balance and there is ego. Ego drives humanity. Many people kill for ideas, for sport and yes, for ego. That’s the smile. Human thinking, human ego has provided us with much but it may very well be the thing that takes it all away. The consciousness that is responsible for the manifestation of the human form is the same consciousness that is responsible for the manifestation of the millions of life forms on this planet, in the oceans, etc. Do more homework. Lion numbers have dropped dramatically. When is the last time you were in Africa? I can tell you from personal experience that lion populations are a small fragment of what they were 40 years ago and the remaining populations are under immense pressure.

On this planet, in this paradigm there is something called evolution. We are living in a different world and
we have progressed. A few hundreds years ago someone who was relatively unconscious could do limited harm but today with the advanced technology and nuclear weapons we face a hard choice and we no longer have the luxury of time. Wake up or go extinct! I know what I said ruffled your feathers a bit but again, the ego is insanely defensive and protective. You can come up with all the names, labels and attacks you want but understand in doing so you are simply validating my point.

Duane S. - posted 2 years ago on 04-10-2017 07:00:57 am
Etna, california

I see we have another wondering "disneylander" and anti-gunner has found something to complain about.
Since time began humans have picked up sticks and rocks to kill other things. Each Other, animals for food and protection. Seems Ferdinand A. did not get that. I guess he thinks food is only found in markets on the street corner and protection is only at the end of a 911 call. Had humans not understood the use of weapons for the reasons noted above we would have been gone long ago. Animals have teeth, claws, speed to survive, we have the ability to pick up rocks, sticks, or make guns to compete in the REAL WORLD! Lions have had bounties placed on them and still they thrived. The animals we hunt are better moving and hiding in the there world. Just the use of a gun does not guarantee we are always the victor. More than one human has died, with a weapon in their hands, either by starving or at the clays and teeth of these very animals you claim have no defense against. You keep eating your McDonalds and hiding behind your civilized world. I will continue to go out in pursuit of WILD animals for the food, and the thrill of the chase, where the the animal wins more times than do I. When I am successful I will smile and enjoy the success of the hunt.

Ferdinand A. - posted 2 years ago on 04-08-2017 05:49:57 pm

Sounds like someone wrote an article that makes others feel more comfortable with their actions. The ego is a strange thing. I always have to laugh when you see guys smiling in front of a picture of a dead animal. What the hell? Why are they smiling? Like the animal has a chance against a gun. If you want to call it sportsmanship and if you want to call it fair. Let me drop you off in the middle of lion country without a gun, with just the way you came in and we'll come back the next morning and see how you faired.

Brian B. - posted 3 years ago on 03-09-2016 01:05:03 pm

I checked my post and I didn't stutter...

It's fine to lay out a rational argument for/against some procedure, it would go a long way to support said cause if people didn’t take pictures of themselves with an animal they’ve killed out of overpopulation concerns versus one they’ve killed while sport hunting.

There’s enough Kardashians out there; as hunters, we don't need to be doing it too.

J.R. Y. - posted 3 years ago on 03-08-2016 05:27:20 pm

Shot in the dark guess, but I'm figuring he's referring to the classic picture of a hunter hoisting up a dead cat like he/she is a toddler holding a pet kitty. To me, that picture does us an incredible disservice to hunters as a whole. Primarily because the non-hunting public does not understand predator hunting as a whole, and it is an incredibly valuable tool anti-hunters use against us. If we put more effort into communicating what and how we do it, as opposed to taking a trophy shot for our buddies we could be more effective.

Bill Tatom_1036862796337121
Bill T. - posted 3 years ago on 03-08-2016 05:15:59 pm
Williston, ND

What's that got to do with this subject Brian?

Duane S. - posted 3 years ago on 03-08-2016 04:15:32 pm
Etna, california

Brain, what???????

Brian B. - posted 3 years ago on 03-08-2016 03:51:49 pm

Duane & Bill, thanks for the insights -I appreciate... I think it would go a long way if people dropped the whole 'selfie' with the kill, trend.

Duane S. - posted 4 years ago on 02-18-2016 09:59:50 am
Etna, california

Brain, yes as Bill has stated that any predator, or for that matter any animal, predator or prey uncontrolled will continue to outgrow its food and range. Soon it will starve to death or die out of disease. I would agree that just the random killing and WASTING OF ANY ANIMAL IS A GREAT TRAGEDY. Given that our disney politicians and the bambii anti hunters can't see that to sustain any of our wild resources they must be managed. Our timber, fish, big game and predators. No different than just letting your lawn grow uncontrolled, it will soon take over and then die. One would think that NATURE would control this problem, predator / prey. Yes it does but can be very ugly. Given that man weather hunting, living or traveling in and through the places that all these animals roam we impact this balance, whether we like it or not. The only way to keep ALL animals in balance WE need to manage them. To lose any of these great animals to me is the greatest of all disasters. Not looking at the issue with logic and just going with the Disney version ALL these animals are on a path to extension or zoos.

Bill Tatom_1036862796337121
Bill T. - posted 4 years ago on 02-18-2016 08:07:59 am
Williston, ND

I can try and answer that Brian B. Just like anything you need to have a balance and the Mountain Lion population in California is way out of control. It has devastated the Deer, Elk and Big Horn population. For instance a friend of mine in Paradise, California watch a lion jump over his neighbors fence and tried to kill thier dog. And this is in a populated area. Southern California has the same problem. And now the Bear population is going to be a problem.

Brian B. - posted 4 years ago on 02-18-2016 06:55:35 am

OK, to help me out, why is it that people want to kill mountain lions? Are they really any threat at all to livestock? To kill it just because it's there seems strange...

Duane S. - posted 4 years ago on 02-11-2016 03:57:08 pm
Etna, california

With the lack of "official" regulation it is turning into a vigilante form of control. If you see one you shoot one. This will be adopted for all the apex predators that are not controlled by legal and managed means. It is a sad way for these magnificent animals to be shot and left to rot in the sun, but with the lack of ANY REGULATION then we have no other recourse.

Bill Tatom_1036862796337121
Bill T. - posted 4 years ago on 02-10-2016 07:43:09 am
Williston, ND

Great article, definitely agree with most of it. However I think the Lion population is more like 8,000 to 10,000, that's why Nevada has such a high population now of Mountain Lions and Bears because California can't control their population. The Fish and Game kill more then the hunters did..

J.R. Y. - posted 4 years ago on 02-05-2016 10:23:10 am

Ryan W.

Under depredation permits, which is the use of hired hunters, as well as land/livestock owner just under 100 lions have been killed each year for the past 8 or so years. The take has decreased in recent years, which is interesting when paralleled the the science that says when dominant toms are not killed, they will control the population. However, this is correlation, not causation...but an interesting parallel.

Here are the stats from the department.

If you want to look back at the history of how many lions have been killed by humans in CA take a look at the link below. This coming from a very pro-cat group, and if reported with a bias, it would be to the upside. It highlights that there was a long span for which we were not killing lions at all.

You are correct to point out though that we still do kill cats after the ban, it is a bit of a surprise to many.

Another interesting point is that there was $30M allocated for habitat funding as a result of the ban, this ultimately is a good thing and something us hunters don't reference too much. That spending is coming up for expiration in 2021 so it will be very interesting to see where what happens. If we lose the funding, and can't hunt, then it is lose lose.

Ryan W. - posted 4 years ago on 02-05-2016 10:01:06 am

Great article. I was recently informed that the hunting of mountain lions in California has never actually stopped. But since the time that hunting of lions there was made illegal, the government has been using funds to pay professional mountain lion hunters to kill about 300-400 mountain lions a year (the same amount of lions that public hunters were taking previously). In other words, population control through hunting is still being used, but instead of hunters fitting the bill, now tax payers are fitting the bill (including those against hunting), and the government is doing the hunting through private contractors. But as long as no photos end up online, the anti hunters are oblivious of the fact. Can anyone inform me if this is indeed the case in California?

Dave A. - posted 4 years ago on 01-29-2016 04:56:39 pm

"Had the mountain lion not been considered a protected species, CDFW could have approved a depredation hunt on the population of cats that threatened the bighorn. This would have generated revenue via tag sales and cut the cost of paying CDFW personnel to collar and eradicate the problem cats. While activist groups raise money to pass laws that prevent hunting and take the decision making power for wildlife management out of the hands of biologists and state agencies, hunters generate millions in revenue each year for wildlife conservation." So good. Great read.

Lisa M. - posted 4 years ago on 01-29-2016 07:12:30 am

Wow someone is finaly telling the TRUTH. This is a great article and I hope you send a copy to the Governor of CA. SCI has just filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Fish and Wildlife commission in regards to the current Bobcat issue. Now we need help from all Californian's to save the deer population and other wildlife. The Anti's agenda is to save all predators in order to kill all wildlife and then there will be no hunting. We need to stop these Anti's.

D H. - posted 4 years ago on 01-29-2016 12:45:01 am
So Cal

Great read. The biggest thing people here don't understand is that DFW pays govt hunters to take cats at tax payers expense. I try to explain this to people here and all they say is "they can't do that". They think they are cuddly and cute. People here vote with their heart and not their brain.

luke g. - posted 4 years ago on 01-28-2016 09:55:35 am
Redding, California

J.R. Y. Thanks for your input. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know all there is to know about mountain lions, or the intricacies of their management over the last 50 years; which is precisely what drove me to learn more about the topic. I agree with the sentiment that true anti hunters won't be turned. We can however work to improve the perception of hunting to those who are indifferent or simply uninformed. I started writing articles in public forum for this purpose. It is my hope that we can present hunting in a manner that shows that sportsmen are good stewards.

Alexander K. - posted 4 years ago on 01-28-2016 07:06:11 am
Denver, CO

Thank you for this very well researched and neutral article. In this day of political agendas, it is pleasant to see one written that focuses on the facts rather than the populist fictions both sides of the political spectrum spew.

On a separate note, the threat to hunting and fishing has been a very real battle in Europe, particularly the UK. It is important as sportsmen and sportswomen that we stand united whether liberal or conservative to fight ignorance. Support your local and non-local conservation organizations every voice matters.

Jake C. - posted 4 years ago on 01-27-2016 06:12:09 pm

I've been hunting in California for over 20 years and have seen the deer population drop !

J.R. Y. - posted 4 years ago on 01-27-2016 05:24:36 pm

I 100% agree that when wildlife management decision are taken out of the biologists hands and put in the decision of voters or a legislature wildlife loses. This is true in California as well as Montana, but for different reasons. That said, I think your article would be enhanced if you referenced the period from 1963 (end of the bounty era) to 1990 where only 600 lions were killed in the state.

Further, in the 25 year post 117 we have killed fives times more through depredation (nearly 3,000) than in the 30 year span leading up to Prop 117. I wish those lions taken could have generated license revenue, but that ship has sailed. Looking at pure statistics, one could argue that Prop 117 has at least allowed us a (limited) management tool.

There are also some interesting studies coming out of the Large Carnivore Lab at Washington State University. Highly worth your time to read, and would provide additional scientific research to the tool kit.

Finally, as for our challenges, we as hunters need to change the focus to those that don't hunt, but support it. We won't ever change anti-hunters minds, nor will they change ours. But, if we can add more people to our corner we can mute their crys.

Kevin R. - posted 4 years ago on 01-27-2016 05:00:55 pm
San Jose, California

Well written article. It would be awesome to get our wildlife management’s decision power back in California to be able to make informed management decisions that include science and the recreational hunter as a management tool again. Seeing the steady spiral in the other direction all these years has been so sad to see. Along with habitat issues, I too believe and agree it has not been in the best interest for all our wildlife or our hunting communities future in California.