License to Kill: Mountain Lions and Values in a Disappearing Wild

This week we thought it was sure death for P-45, a four year old male mountain lion who many conservationists see as a Hail-Mary pass for the threatened ecosystems and limited gene pool of lions in the Santa Monica mountains — who face possible extinction in the near future. So why is this virile and valuable young mountain lion a hero for some and a demon put on death row by others?

It really comes down to values. Not right or wrong, not good or bad, not evil or loving, and neither side is simple. But it is about values. Conservationists welcome the much-needed biodiversity brought by P-45 to a vulnerable wild population. Some ranchers recoil from the realities that living amidst mountains and mountain lions brings.

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P-32 as a kitten (Photo: NPS)

In the past year, P-45 is suspected to have killed ranched animals — from llamas to alpacas to a goat to a mini-horse. And that is why California Fish & Wildlife issued a depredation permit to rancher Victoria Vaughn-Perling, who had 10 days to kill the lion within 10 miles of the livestock kills (her 10 alpacas). Yet after massive national uproar, she has claimed she will not kill the lion.

Ms. Vaughn-Perling and other neighboring ranchers portray themselves as living in fear, for themselves and for their animals; as if under siege from the wild around them. Earlier this week, Vaughn-Perling said she would prefer to capture and relocate the lion, but would kill him if not allowed to relocate him. Thankfully, wildlife officials stepped in to negotiate with her – a move that wouldn’t happen in other locations, believe me.

Of course, his removal from this ecosystem would be just as problematic and reveals the fundamental system of values. There are only two other breeding-age males in the 10-15 lions living in the Santa Monica mountains, and P-45 is an important part of that ecosystem. Many do not understand or value the need for wild ecosystems, and see them as merely a nuisance that gets in the way of a civilized life. But we cannot have civilization without thriving wild habitats.

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Cougar mom P-19 (Photo: NPS)

The National Park Service, who radio-collared and observed P-45 to study mountain lion behavior — science, learning, and those pesky values again — have stated that the behavior of P-45 is natural, and killing him does not solve the “problem.” Here is a major crux of the wildlife-livestock “conflict,” which is really a wildlife-rancher conflict:

“In a typical natural setting, animals flee from a mountain lion attack, but if animals are stuck in an unsecured pen, a mountain lion’s response can be to prey upon all available animals.” — National Park Service spokesperson Kate Kuykendall.

Once again, it comes down to values: choosing the value of coexisting or the value of dominance. We might sympathize with ranchers, as personified by Vaughn-Perling and her neighbors – just trying to make a living and get by, and really just wanting these wild lions away from them. They aren’t necessarily, that we know of, the foaming at the mouth wolf-haters or coyote-killers, who participate in bloodbaths and just like killing. Rather, they are okay with these animals being somewhere, just not anywhere near them.

Several problems immediately come to mind, however:

  • There is increasingly less wild for these animals to go, because semi-rural, urban, and suburban sprawl into the foothills – where mountain lions live – is pushing lions to the brink and leaving little options.
  • Not only have humans built ranches and subdivisions in the natural and dwindling territories of wild animals like lions and coyotes and wolves – but some of them refuse to take proper precautions that would allow coexistence.
  • Animals are not disposable and we are not God. Ecosystems are intricate fabrics weaved by the relationships of their members. We must learn that keystone species, predators, are fundamental to trophic cascade – to the health of the entire rest of the inner workings of ecosystems. Without them, the thread comes loose.

 

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P-19 curious about this camera (Photo: NPS)

For example, it may stun you to know that the National Wildlife Federation has offered to buy guard dogs for some of these ranchers, instead of killing vital mountain lions. Wouldn’t it be fair to assume that if one moves into wild territory, and forces livestock into these areas, one might have a moral responsibility, for oneself, for livestock, for wild neighbors, to make suitable protective arrangements for all involved?

Well that is just what some of the ranchers in this area have done. Vaughn-Perling, allegedly had barbed-wire fencing around her alpacas and security cameras. But anyone who lives amidst wildlife knows that is a gesture, but not the proper precaution. This  might deter a hiker or passerby, but does nothing in the way of deterrence that shows any understanding of mountain lions.

As I have mentioned before, proper fencing (depending on the type of predator), riders, guard dogs, fladry, lights, and sounds, among other nonlethal tactics (like hosting workshops for the ranching community on these methods) are successful and minimizing wildlife-human-livestock conflicts. Yet our legal system remains with the Wild West, where we colonize nature and natives, rather than even attempt to coexist — when a predator like a mountain lion is seen as a threat to a rancher who hasn’t even made minimal efforts to avoid the situation, they can easily apply for a permit to kill the lion (killing a lion without a permit can land you in jail and/or slapped with a $10,000 fine). With a coyote? They don’t even need a permit.

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Wildlife biologists say these kittens (P-48 and P-49) are likely the offspring of P-45 (Photo: NPS).

Honorably, the owner of the mini-horse that was attacked, and the owners of the winery where the llamas were attacked, did not seek a depredation permit, unlike Vaughn-Perling and others. In an interview with the Los Angeles Timesranch manager Dakota Semler said “The lions were here first, and we plan to stay… We realize the risks involved, but we also appreciate that lions are wild animals that also live here. So we’re going to learn to live and work with them around.” These ranchers were certainly as horrified by anyone else upon finding their ranched animals attacked and killed. But their response was not to seek a killing permit, but to erect lion-proof fencing.

Let us not surrender to the assumption that most people (including ranchers) want mountain lions gone either. When I lived in the Bay Area, a mountain lion mother and her three cubs were caught on a webcam sipping water in a creek on a relatively popular hiking trail. Overwhelmingly, people were delighted and awed, and, while slightly more cautious, simply excited. Similarly, in the wilderness where I live in Northern California, a mountain lion was shot and killed after it was seen in a neighborhood. The majority of people I ask about the incident refuse to speak about it, because they are deeply angered and saddened by the unnecessary killing of this magnificent, shy, mysterious animal.

So why this range of views? Most of us don’t really want to live in a world without lions, without wildlife, and without places for wildlife to thrive – places untrammeled by humans, spaces that are free from human domination.

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Values and psychological motivations should be considered more in this moral dilemma. For when a rancher encounters the violence of their livestock slaughtered, one wonders who to blame. Some people come to the view that they had a role in this situation and do what they can to prevent it from recurring, and adjust to it, like Dakota Semler. Others, not wanting to blame themselves, blame the wild animal and create a culture of fear. But mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, foxes and bears are not a mafia – they are not sitting around a card table planning their attacks and revenge while puffing on Cuban cigars. It’s not personal, it’s business. Wildlife are presented with confined, unprotected livestock, that they are trained to otherwise hunt, and they simply go out to eat. Our values must be to coexist with our neighbors, knowing their lifestyle patterns.

The fur-farmer, Vaughn-Perling, perhaps under public pressure, but also with a great deal of coaxing from California Fish & Wildlife, has agreed to take the protective measures she should have in the first place, rather than kill this valuable lion. This should be the foundation of anyone who is already profiting from using animals and their bodies. But there is a fundamental stumbling block in the value system that at its core sees animals, whether livestock or wildlife, as disposable and quite secondary to human profit margins.

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P-35, a female lion (Photo: NPS)

Mountain lions are assailed by human contact in a variety of forms, and not just from depredation killing, but from vehicle accidents and from ingesting rat poison. 13 of 14 mountain lions in this region, studied by the National Park Service, tested positive for ingested rat poison. Another major factor threatening these animals is habitat loss.

So a useful question to ask – and for you to consider – is, if most people want mountain lions and other wild predators to survive, if the wildlife officials want them to thrive, if some ranchers are willing to take precautionary measures, if some ranchers refuse to seek depredation permits, if organizations are willing to pay to provide the minimal protections the ranchers refuse to provide for themselves, and if mountain lions are so beloved that the life of an individual lion, like P-45, is the locus of media attention, of petitions aimed at saving his life, of public uproar… why is it that the ranchers who were irresponsible in the first place are the ones we listen to?

Why is it that the livestock industry has such a dominating reign over the law? Why does the livestock industry interests, particularly the ones who can’t coexist, trump the values of everyone else and our right to wildlife and wilderness? Why does these negligent industry operators get the power to impact which inmates are placed on death row?

More:

  • Support Save L.A. Cougars and their fundraising to build a wildlife crossing over the 101.
  • Support the Mountain Lion Foundation.
  • Contact California Fish & Wildlife and Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and thank them and encourage them to continue supporting nonlethal measures and working with local ranchers to coexist with wildlife.
  • Read this.
  • Sign the petition to protect P-45.

 

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