Editorial: Lion count would ensure safety, security

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With signs that mountain lions may be getting all too comfortable with humans and all too willing to hunt during daylight, there is enough concern about potential public safety ramifications to reestablish a more reliable, structured count.

The state more than two decades ago stopped conducting official counts of the mountain lion population, while Fish and Game for decades before that decision had kept a close watch on a species whose numbers steadily increased until the practice ended.

Statewide, the population that year in 1988 had reached an estimate of 4,000 to 6,000 cougars, a figure considered healthy by most accounts. It is the same number the state uses today in its subjective analysis based on reported “incidents” and “sightings” in arguing the figures have remained fairly steady.

At its core, the issue for the past century has been driven by shifting public sentiment of control measures such as hunting, banned since 1990, and about the notion of maintaining a predation management program, nullified since the early 1960s.

From 1907 to 1963, the state listed mountain lions as a “bountied predator,” with an average of more than 200 killed each year during that time, according to a national organization called “Saving America’s Lion.”

They were reclassified as a “game mammal” for a short time before Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 signed a moratorium suspending the cougar hunt, according to the group’s Web site. In 1990, then, statewide voters put a permanent stamp on Reagan’s moratorium and approved a proposition that banned sport hunting of California’s lions.

Often lost in the debate, however, is the fact that mountain lion populations, even when the state did closely monitor the figures, never have prompted an endangered or threatened designation in California.

There are nearly 300 species of plants and animals in California listed as endangered or threatened. The mountain lion is not among them. The cougar’s historical populations, on the contrary, as noted by fish and game, have been mostly healthy for decades.

The cougar preservation argument goes especially awry when you consider its supporters have backed the uncontrolled strengthening of one species while knowingly fostering the unnatural decimation of another.

Deer numbers in San Benito County and statewide over the past four decades have plummetted, as noted by local rancher Charlie McCullough in a Free Lance story. There were more than 50,000 in 1963 and just 5,000 to 6,000 now, he said, while the same trend has occurred statewide.

Why have environmental groups and fish and game officials neglected to consider the alarming nature of declining deer numbers and what effect it might have on area ecosystems?

Or whether it might actually mean the mountain lions are looking for alternative food sources because their first option is scarce?

Why have they not at least examined the possibility that some areas like ours may be more prone than others to a dangerous boost to the mountain lion population? These animals are solitary and territorial. If one area gets overpopulated, some of the big cats will get more desperate than others and perhaps venture into areas where they do not belong.

Why have government officials placed a non-threatened species higher on the priority list than the financial security of many families and businesses?

The apparent answer to all those questions is that state leaders have failed to recognize the negative impacts of ignoring the cougar count. They have shown, whether written or unwritten, how fish and game has cultivated a man-made list of subjective, emotional priorities when it comes to species conservation.

It’s not exactly a Darwin-like method for maintaining natural habitats.

If they open their eyes, state leaders will see there are important ecological, economic and safety-related reasons to reestablish a mountain lion count and examine potential options after doing so.

The issue offers a rare chance to proactively address a potentially major problem before it amplifies into a more serious, wider challenge. We hope it does not take a tragedy to propel action.

It’s time to count the lions before it is too late. It’s time to give the public a fair opportunity to weigh what is truly at stake.

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