Return of the Mountain Lion

Their roar was once rare, but the big cats are back.

Bill Tulloch, a rancher from the Ramona area, says he’s lost at least three calves to lions in the past year. He hasn’t asked for a depredation permit because he doesn’t think it would do any good. “This country’s pretty brushy, and lions move around a lot. It’d be out of the ordinary to see one just standing there in the open, waiting for you to shoot it. I do think there’s enough lions that they should become a game animal again and let hunters have a chance at getting one. I’d hate to see every one of them killed off, and I think most ranchers would agree with me. But this cattle business isn’t so good that I can afford to feed my family and the lions, too. If the lion problem around here gets bad enough, ranchers are going to take it in their own hands.”

Yet most ranchers nowadays seem to have mixed feelings about the cats, hating them for what they can do to their livestock but admiring them as a symbol of a lost era. Willie Tellam, who runs cattle on 26,000 acres near San Pasqual, says, “You hear all these goddamned mountain lion stories, but I don’t know. Once in a while, a cow will show up without her calf, and we don’t know what happened to it. It would be taking unfair advantage of the lion to say he got it; it could have been a lot of things. But lions are out there. The last one I saw was on October 10. We were out deer hunting, and the east wind was blowing. I came around the corner of the road, and there it was, standing right there, an immense cat. It made the hair stand up on my arms. I don’t know why, there’s just something about seeing a lion. It was a beautiful animal, just beautiful. If I was out riding today and saw a lion, I’d probably sit there a long time deciding whether to shoot it or let it go. By the time I decided, the lion would be gone. But if I caught it killing my calves, I’d shoot it in a second.”

Felis concolor has been known by so many different names — mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, catamount — that many people are unaware these are all the same animal. It is a secretive, nocturnal beast, so distrustful of even its own kind that, except for fighting and mating, it spends most of its life in solitude. It is extremely territorial: when a transient male invades another lion’s territory, the result is often a fight to the death, after which the victor does not hesitate to devour the weaker cat. Practically all males bear battle scars. The lions are exceptionally wary of humans; people who spend their entire lives in lion country rarely get a glimpse of one. Says Willie Tellam, “I’ve lived here 53 years, I’m out riding all the time, and I’ve seen three lions in my life. Of course, I see their tracks every day.” Bill Tulloch, who has seen only one lion in the last 35 years, agrees. And Spike Alford, who has been out in the brush all his life, saw his first lion only a decade ago.

In the United States, mountain lions once extended from California to Florida. Today in this country, there are no lions at all east of the Rockies, with the exception of a small remnant population in Florida. They have been known to inhabit mountains, deserts, jungle, and prairie, but in San Diego County they prefer the rocky or brush-covered land that provides good camouflage for their ambush style of hunting. They may grow to weigh as much as 160 pounds, and wild exaggerations of larger cats are common, perhaps because the sight of a cat nearly as large as an average-size man has a way of distorting one’s perception.

Mountain lions almost always coexist with deer, which are their favorite prey. An adult lion will take about 50 deer per year. Some biologists say this has no effect on a healthy deer herd, that lions and deer have been coevolving for thousands of years, and that this predatory relationship benefits both animals. Other biologists contend that if the lions are too densely populated, they can decimate a deer herd. They are superbly designed for killing large prey; their powerful jaws can crush a deer’s skull, and their claws are curved in such a way that the harder the prey struggles, the more they curl in deeper. Lions will also eat smaller prey such as rabbits, squirrels, birds, and other predators, but they will not eat spoiled meat. During warm weather they will seek fresh meat rather than eat from an old carcass. They seem to relish killing for killing’s sake — a lion in Placer County once killed 45 sheep in one night, then didn’t eat from any of them.

Lions prefer a large territory, one that might range somewhere between ten and 100 square miles per lion, depending on the number of deer the land can support. The lions’ solitary habits benefit them in some ways — they rarely transmit parasites and disease to each other — but because their individual territories are so extensive, a very large, contiguous body of land is necessary to support a healthy lion population. In the San Diego area, habitat destruction caused by overdevelopment is undoubtedly their greatest threat today.

Man has never gotten along very well with mountain lions. Though they usually go to great extremes to avoid people, there are 12 documented deaths caused by lions (all children under 12) in the United States and Canada in this century. There exist more documented cases of lion attacks, including a boy seriously injured by a mountain lion in British Columbia this past May.

In early California the mission padres frequently complained of lions stealing their livestock and offered a bounty of one bull for every lion killed. From 1907 until 1963, there was a bounty on lions in California, which began at $20 per lion and gradually increased to $60. During those 56 years, bounty hunters and professional lion hunters hired by the state killed 12,500 lions. Ranchers and other hunters who didn’t bother to collect the bounty may have killed two to three times that number. The purpose of the bounty was both to control livestock depredations and also to protect deer populations, which were thought to be in jeopardy. By the mid-’40s, with lion populations drastically reduced, the deer populations in some parts of California had increased to such a degree that herds were starving, and professional hunters were hired to slaughter them.

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