By Kellie Flanagan –
MOUNTAIN AREA – More than half of California is mountain lion habitat. Sometimes, more than others, we’re reminded of that.
It happened this month, and wasn’t reported right away. Dan Fidler got a call stating that a mountain lion had killed livestock on Jose Basin Road in Fresno County in a nocturnal attack that left residents fearing a return of the powerful beast.
This kind of call is par for Fidler’s course: he’s the Fresno Unit Wildlife Biologist for the California Dept of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Fidler was called out to investigate one woman’s report that a very large lion had come onto her property near Auberry, attacked her goat and left the carcass behind.
The big cat was described by the homeowner as “ginormous,” according to Fidler, which, for a mountain lion, could mean a weight of between 160 to 175 potentially lethal pounds.
Sure to type, the lion on Jose Basin returned to the scene of its slaughter the next night, Fidler says, and didn’t seem to be too afraid of humans. The cat was back to have another meal off its leftover carcass of goat. Mountain lions are known to kill, feed, leave the scene and then return to feed again as long as the meat isn’t rancid.
The mountain lion approached the spot, stopping first a ways down the hill in a dry river bed. The homeowners saw it coming. There they were, between the lion and the carcass, protecting their other animals. A short standoff ensued, with lots of screaming and waving of arms and stomping of feet.
The residents shot a .22 rifle into the air and even that didn’t seem to faze the big cat. The homeowners continued their protests and the cat finally took off, but it took a while to shake him. It’s likely, due to the reported size, that the lion was a male. Mountain lions are usually expected to be elusive and solitary, avoiding humans when possible. Not this one.
“It did not react to the sights and sounds of humans the way one would have hoped,” Fidler confirms.
Even a small mountain lion can weigh 80 to 90 pounds. In the San Jose Basin case the carcass had been destroyed before Fidler made it to the scene, and while he has not technically confirmed the kill was by mountain lion, the biologist has no reason to believe it wasn’t.
“It makes sense that it was a mountain lion. We know we have cats and occasionally we get depredation. Sightings are common; the killing of livestock is less so.”
While it’s unknown precisely how many lions reside in the valley that spans Fresno and Madera Counties with the San Joaquin River in between, or in the foothills nearby, experts do have an understanding of territory.
According to Fidler, “Understanding mountain lion territory is like looking at the way humans have a house and a big yard.
“Most people spend most of their time inside just a few rooms of the house, and less time in the back yard. It’s the same way with mountain lions. They spend the majority of time within a 10 – 20 mile area that’s home, while the totality of their territory could be upwards of 100 square miles. That’s their back yard.”
Residents of the foothills fall into the area of mountain lions’ back yard. Fidler wants people to contact him right away if animals are killed, and a mountain lion is suspected.
“The vast majority of interactions between humans and mountain lions are sightings,” he explains. “If livestock is killed, we want to know.”
Fidler counseled the Jose Basin resident on how to cope with her situation, providing information about living with mountain lions and about depredation. He recommends she keep an extra close eye on her livestock, and the same goes for her neighbors in the area.
For more information or to make a report, contact CDFW biologist Dan Fidler at (559) 353-0216.
CDFW policy states that mountain lions preying on pets or livestock can be killed by a property owner after the required depredation permit is secured. Moving what may be considered problem mountain lions is not an option, as it causes deadly conflicts with other mountain lions already living in the new area, or the relocated mountain lion returns.
Mountain lion encounters are fairly rare, but when they do come in contact with humans, the meeting has a great impact. Just ask Candace Gregory, who reports weekly on her hikes and travels through the Sierra and Yosemite and beyond.
Last February, Candace was hiking with some friends not far from Mammoth Pool Road when a big mountain lion attacked her dog, Sally. The cat, estimated to weigh about 130 pounds, had Sally in what seemed to be a death-grip until one of the hiking party beat it back with a pole. Miraculously, Sally survived.
Back in March, a mountain lion made news in North Fork. What appears to have been a killing spree claimed 14 head of livestock in two separate instances. The lion first preyed on seven sheep and devoured them. That same month on another property, seven goats were attacked and left dead. They were not eaten. Mountain lions are among the most efficient of killers, locking their jaws on prey in such a way as to crush the esophagus quickly, smothering the animal with rapid force.
The CDFW biologist assigned to Madera County is Tim Kroeker, who also investigates incidents of attack and can issue permits for depredation when necessary. Kroeker encourages anyone who lives in the foothills and keeps small livestock to lock them up at night in some type of structure that has sturdy sides and a good roof.
Both of the North Fork residents who lost livestock in these springtime incidents were issued depredation permits by the CDFW. The permits are good for only ten days, and no mountain lion was even spotted in the allotted time period in these instances. While the CDFW issues the permits, they are not the agency to carry out the trapping or killing of a problem animal. That agency is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Besides permitted residents under special circumstances, only certified trappers with specific experience and the proper permit can attempt to trap or kill wildlife that is perceived as a threat to livestock or humans.
Since they’d had no luck in the ten-day permit limit, one of the North Fork residents decided to turn to the professionals, attempting to contact the local USDA sanctioned trapper for Madera County, Wildlife Specialist Randy Partch.
Partch has been trapping and dealing with errant animals for more than 25 years.
The residents in North Fork reached Partch in April and were shocked to find out the contract between Madera County and the USDA had reduced the trapper’s availability from the usual 12 months to only 9 months of the year as a money-saving measure. Therefore, Partch was off duty for the County during April, May, and June, and is only available to respond to incidents during the months he’s under contract.
Unfortunately, local predators like mountain lions did not receive that same memorandum. Thus, Partch had heard about the livestock lost in North Fork back in March, but wasn’t able to act on the information.
Now, though, Wildlife Specialist Partch is pleased to say he’s back on duty twelve months a year. Thanks to Tom Wheeler and the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Partch has a new contract and it’s year-round. He started his term again on July 1, and didn’t have to wait long before he got a call about a mountain lion. Actually, it was two incidents in one week, at the same location.
Partch drove out to North Fork on Sunday, July 5, after reports of a goat killed by a mountain lion. The goat had been dragged about 40 feet away from where it was taken. Within a day or so, a second goat had gone missing. Partch found the second goat almost right away. It had also been dragged about 40 feet, this time down a little ridge. This denotes a pattern, says Partch, and it’s this kind of detail that can help authorities keep track of what particular creature is preying on local livestock.
“We don’t want to kill it; that’s the last resort,” says Partch, who does his best to protect property and livestock using non-lethal methods. For this most recent incident, in North Fork in July, no depredation permit has been issued as of yet, he confirms. They are on a wait-and-watch with the CDFW.
“It’s their decision whether the animal is removed, and what they do with it,” says Partch. Randy Partch can be reached at (209) 384-3146. Contact information is also available in Madera County by dialing 311.
Dan Fidler also offered information about bes practices when living in mountain lion country:
“Animals taken during lion predation events are usually small livestock such and sheep and goats. The next most predated would be and cats and dogs. Best practices for having these animals in lion country include penning or otherwise housing animals at night, and installing tall fencing in areas that livestock are kept.”
Fidler suggest the height of a fence should be 8-foot and above.
“Best practices for personal safety include taking hikes with friends, avoiding long solo walks at night, keeping children that are playing outside within ear and eye distance, and trimming heavy bushes around your property that can serve as cover for lions.”
As the expert says, “a little bit of prevention can go a long way to making sure that encounters with mountain lions can be positive in nature.”
Kellie Flanagan is Managing Editor of Sierra News Online