California mountain lion killed near Camarillo after state issues depredation permit
A male cougar tracked by the National Park Service was killed in the Santa Monica Mountains late last month after the state issued a depredation permit for the animal.
Hunting mountain lions is illegal in the state, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issues those permits in cases that a cougar kills or injures domestic animals.
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area said P-56 was the first radio-collared mountain lion killed under the state depredation law in the area.
P-56 was killed Jan. 27, the day after he is believed to have killed domestic animals on a property near Camarillo, said Tim Daly, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
That was one of nine separate incidents over a two-year period despite efforts on the part of the owner to protect sheep and lambs on the property.
At least one of the incidents did not involve P-56, but the agency believes he was responsible for a majority of the incidents, Daly said.
The agency emphasizes nonlethal methods first, he said. "These things happen when animals show repeated behavior and steps that are taken by property owners or animal owners are not enough."
At the time of his death, P-56, believed to be 4 or 5 years old, had a home range that spans most of the western Santa Monicas.
He was first caught and outfitted with a GPS tracking collar by the National Park Service in April 2017.
Since 2002, park biologists have studied mountain lions in and around the Santa Monicas in Ventura and Los Angeles counties to determine how they survive in the increasingly urban area.
"Our mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains south of the 101 freeway are already facing a number of significant challenges," said Jeff Sikich, the lead field biologist for the project.
They are exposed to – and have died from – exposure to rodenticide poison. Others have been struck and killed by vehicles in the area hemmed in by development and highways.
Mountain lions face steep odds
The small population's isolation also has led to a lack of genetic diversity, Sikich said.
In 2018, their useable space got even smaller when the Woolsey Fire burned through close to half of the habitat in the Santa Monicas.
"At any given time, we might only have one or two breeding adult males," Sikich said. "So the loss of a breeding male is of particular concern."
Because of the threats to populations in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife put in place a three-strike policy in those areas in late 2017. The agency is responsible for managing the state's wildlife.
In the designated areas, property owners first had to try non-lethal means to keep the cougars away. If the same mountain lion returned three times and took animals, then a property owner could be granted a lethal permit.
Last month, state wildlife officials said no mountain lions had been killed under permits in those spots since the policy changed. In 2018, 115 mountain lions were killed under depredation permits elsewhere in the state.
In this case, the incidents happened outside the boundaries of the three-strike area in the Santa Monicas, officials said. The boundary of the policy apparently runs along Potrero Road in the northwestern side of the mountains.
It's unclear why that line was drawn there since that area is still part of the Santa Monicas. Daly said Monday the line was drawn based on data the agency had at the time.
If it had happened inside the boundary, however, the outcome likely would have been the same, he said.
Part of the three-strike area process is asking landowners or animal owners to take extra steps to protect their animals.
In this case, the agency reported the property owner did try several nonlethal methods to keep the mountain lion away, including keeping as many livestock as possible in an enclosed structure at night, penning any remaining livestock close to the barn and houses, and using trained guard dogs.
"This property owner did everything that would have been asked of someone in the three-strike area," Daly said.
Mountain lions tend to prey on deer and other wild animals, but also will at times take livestock.
Experts say the best way to protect animals from mountain lions is to keep them in a secure enclosure at night, one with a roof and four sturdy walls.
When there are too many animals to do that, properly-trained guard dogs also have been effective, Sikich said.
That doesn't appear to have worked in this case.
As of his death, P-56 was one of two male mountain lions tracked by biologists. Now, they're tracking just one, P-63, a young adult male.
"We are still following an adult male and I would suspect that a younger subadult male, if there is one in the Santa Monicas, would take over that home range of P-56," Sikich said.
That could mean another breeding male in the population, but also could mean eliminating P-56 was a short-term solution for the property owner.
"Landowners in general pursue these depredation permits in an attempt to stop the killing of their animals," Sikich said. "I feel sorry for these landowners when they do lose these animals."
But when the cougar that caused the loss is eliminated, another mountain lion likely will come in and fill that range. "It's not necessarily solving the root of the problem and protecting your livestock," he said.
The state has tips for living in mountain lion country on its website at https://wildlife.ca.gov/Keep-Me-Wild/Lion.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.