Mountain lions dine on Diamond A sheep

A family of mountain lions is suspected of killing and partially consuming as many as seven or eight domestic sheep in the Diamond A subdivision located along Grove Street on the southern flank of Sonoma Mountain.

The lions are believed to be a mother and two young-adult cubs, one of which was reportedly trapped and shot by a county predator control officer (or trapper) after it had killed sheep belonging to a Diamond A resident.

The first sign of a problem occurred on Feb. 1 when a ewe and two baby sheep were discovered slaughtered by a homeowner. The owner quickly requested officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate. They determined the sheep were killed by a mountain lion and approved a predation permit that was exercised by the county trapper.

State policy generally requires that when a predatory animal is found to be responsible for a livestock kill, upon approval of a predation permit, the responsible predator is trapped and then shot.

Subsequently, in late February or early March, two more sheep were killed at a different Diamond A property, but the owners waited too long to call authorities, and by the time the trapper examined the carcasses the kills could not be connected to the lions.

The trap-and-shoot policy came under fire from animal rights advocates last year who argued a federal subsidy for the trapper program might require a full environmental impact report and should be shut down. Critics of the program have protested the policy of killing large predators like coyotes, lions and bears.

But Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said Monday that only one or two predation permits are issued each year for mountain lions. “Coyotes are the most common predators,” he said. “They’re very common in Sonoma County, and they kill a lot of sheep.”

Bruce Hoadley, a Diamond A resident who has managed a Google group for neighbors commenting on the Mountain Lion issue and the sheep slaughter, said over the weekend he believed “the lions have pretty much got them all.”

Hoadley said the prevalence of domestic sheep is partly a product of the fact that typical Diamond A properties are two acres or more, and “that’s too much to mow,” so residents buy sheep and goats to graze on their grass.

Hoadley said he and his wife don’t have sheep, but his wife, Superior Court Judge Julie Conger, raises champion Portuguese water dogs that had been kept in a fenced-in dog run with overnight access to the house through dog doors. Now, said Hoadley, the dogs are kept inside at night, with the dog doors closed.

Hoadley said the sheep killings have taken place “very close to my house. I’m in the middle of it, and I’m concerned.”

He added that the immediacy of the issue was driven home when he was driving up Grove Street two weeks ago and came upon a stopped car in the road. “All of a sudden two lions walked right by us, walking down Grove Street. It looked like a mother lion and a young adult.”

No one has yet reported being threatened by a mountain lion in Diamond A, but one resident, Geri Randall, an attorney and mediator, insists the beasts represent a potentially lethal threat to residents and should be removed from the area. One reason for her concern, she said, is that in the “early ’80s, a woman who was the wife of a client, was attacked in Mill Valley while out jogging, and was killed.”

Randall admits, “I have no way to prove this,” because she cannot remember the name of the client, a fellow arbitrator, but she insists it occurred. Records compiled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as by other agencies and various wildlife organizations, do not show any mountain lion attacks in Marin County, and no fatalities.

But issues of what, if anything, happened to the alleged victim aside, Randall insists that’s not the issue. “The real issue,” she said, “is that lions are a threat to real people.”

Randall said, “I have noticed that the number of deer I am seeing is greatly diminished, and that may be why they’ve moved on to sheep.” She added that the presence of the lions has made her afraid. “Absolutely, I’m afraid. We have all these trees around, every time I go outside I look up at the trees” because mountain lions lie in wait for prey on tree branches, she said.

Randall was critical of the 1990 passage of Proposition 117 that gave protected status to mountain lions. “Environmental groups didn’t have enough evidence that the mountain lion was an endangered species – there was no scientific evidence the lion was in need of protection – so they passed an initiative instead.”

Randall describes herself as a “member of the Sierra Club. I am a rational environmentalist, versus an extremist. The rational ones are concerned about our pets and livestock, they are concerned for our safety. Once lions get accustomed to humans, they get over their shyness. ... But the extreme conservationists are attempting to control the dialog.”

In an attempt to provide a better, rational understanding of steps to take in response to the presence of mountain lions, John Walsh, president of the Diamond A Neighborhood Association, said he is organizing an informational meeting for residents to hear wildlife experts, including officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, advise best practices to avoid further lion predation.

“We’re trying to gather the most accurate and current information, to have all the facts in hand for steps that can be taken,” he said. “The question you have to address, how do you minimize the risk, while in compliance with state law.”

Hoadley said one simple step now seems obvious. “It’s becoming clear,” he said, “it’s not a good idea to keep sheep.” He added that Fish and Wildlife experts have advised people not to walk alone at night, to carry sticks and walk with dogs when possible.

Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, has written extensively about living in lion country (see Op-Ed on page B-7) and advises that most people are unaware of mountain lions living close by because the animals instinctively avoid people. There have been just three fatal mountain lion attacks in the state since 1986, out of 13 attacks overall in the same period. Confronted by a lion, Dale advises, “Do not behave like prey. Stand tall, back up but do not run, look it in the eye, raise your arms over your head, shout, throw things, and fight it if it attacks. Fatal encounters are very rare – a human is 700 times more likely to be killed by a deer.”

Dale also adds that removing a mountain lion from its territory may result in a younger, less-experienced lion taking its place, which could increase the chances of livestock predation and human encounters.

Meanwhile, there are no active requests for predation permits from Diamond A residents, to Walsh’s knowledge, and the furor over mountain lion kills may dissipate along with the resident sheep.