Confronting the apex predator

There’s a four-legged issue migrating around Diamond A, the upscale, rural development scattered along the southeastern flank of Sonoma Mountain.

The issue is mountain lions, the apex predator of the American west, the only animal any of us are likely to confront close to home that could, conceivably, kill us.

Of course, no human in Diamond A has been killed or attacked yet, but upwards of eight pet sheep have been since February, and residents are now debating what, if anything, to do about it.

Opinions reportedly fall along three general lines of thought:

One view seems to hold that, since humans have moved into mountain lion territory, we need to learn to co-exist. It’s up to people, therefore, to modify their behavior so as not to put themselves or their animals – and by extension the magnificent cats – at risk.

Another view involves a 180-degree spin, holding that, while Diamond A may be natural, big cat habitat, it’s now a developed neighborhood and therefore must, realistically, be protected from predation behavior that could, in time, target humans. “Thinning” the cat population of Diamond A, within the bounds of the law, is therefore just common sense.

Lastly, there’s the view that falls somewhere in the middle, embracing both a willingness to change human behaviors by, among other things, not leaving enticing livestock outside at night, but simultaneously using the predation permits provided under fish and wildlife law to eliminate mountain lions that present a threat to pets and people.

All three responses are understandable, and they lead naturally to reflections on a time when there was an even more fearsome predator roaming California.

When Europeans arrived here in the 19th century there were an estimated 10,000 California grizzly bears wandering the state. Some of those creatures stood 10 feet tall on their hind legs, and weighed upwards of 2,000 pounds. What is reputed to have been the world’s largest bear – a California grizzly weighing 2,320 pounds – was shot in Santa Clarita in 1873, two years before the last known human fatality from a grizzly attack.

Human response to grizzly threats was inexorable and inevitable. The last brown bear shot in the state was killed in 1922, and after 1924, no wild grizzlies were ever seen in California again.

By contrast, mountain lions have survived more than a century of systematic extermination and their numbers are believed to have shown a significant increase following the 1990 passage of Proposition 117, which gave them protected status. But that hardly makes them ubiquitous.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has released population estimates ranging from 3,100 to about 5,000 mountain lions in California, although the state’s top lion specialist has stated the number appears to be dropping. Despite Sonoma County’s vast open spaces, the county’s agricultural commissioner says his office only deals with two or three lion issues a year. And experts tell us that killing one lion often just opens the territorial door to another.

All of which leads us to the conclusion that you can’t usually trap or shoot your way out of a lion situation. You have to manage it. Which means sheep penned outdoors in Diamond A may have to become a thing of the past.

Lions will always inspire human anxiety, as well as awe. If you’ve spent any time in Alaskan brown bear country, you know what it feels like to stand in the presence of an apex predator – it’s the experience of feeling like prey. Something perhaps more humans should sometimes feel.