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Mountain Lions Vs. Outdoor Enthusiasts?
After a mountain lion attacked a 70-year-old man hiking with his wife in northern California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we wonder: Are we at risk?
Photograph courtesy of George F. Mobley

Photo: Mountain lion
A mountain lion peers out from a rocky nook in Yellowstone National Park.

Related Articles:

Stalking the Spirit Lions Photos:
Man-Eating Lions in Tanzania >>


Gustave the Serial Killer Croc Photos:
Man-Eating Crocodile >>


Fast facts about mountain lions >>

Jim Hamm, 70, was hiking through northern California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on Wednesday, January 24, when a mountain lion snagged him by the head—and held on. Jim's wife, Nell, 65, fought the cougar off her severely wounded husband, saving his life. (Read more about their story >>). 

Though the Hamms' story was one of the most visible mountain lion attacks in several years, the issue itself is familiar. Adventure first examined the growing conflict between mountain lions and outdoor enthusiasts in "Welcome to the Neighborhood" by Carl Hoffman (published in October 2004, read an excerpt >> ). Hunted to near extinction just 40 years ago, the big cats have rebounded and are now found in greater numbers than when Columbus came ashore.

We wondered, what risks do outdoor enthusiasts accept when they step into cougar country? And, when there is an attack, what is the effective, or just, response? To get a sense of the issue, we contacted six experts, each drawing on a diverse range of experience tracking, studying, protecting, or hunting mountain lions.
—Reported by George Quraishi and Ryan Bradley

We'd also like to know what you think. Send us your comments at adventure@ngs.org


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THE SITUATION
What has changed are cougar regulations, residential development and recreational activity in cougar country, and, for that matter the kind of people that are out in the woods. For these reasons, we've seen more attacks since the 1980s.

Starting about 1970, most of the western states shifted from considering the cougar a "varmint" without protection to a big-game species subject to seasons and bag limits. The amount of regulation varied from state to state.

Mainly, though, I think the increasing number of attacks relates to numbers of people moving around in cougar habitat. The sheer number of people spending time outdoors has increased immensely over the past few decades. Fifty years ago, most of the people penetrating cougar country were ranchers, hunters, or extremely experienced hikers—and most were armed.

I don't think the state game departments, who are responsible for cougar management, have any choice but to kill a cat that attacks or even clearly threatens a human. Public safety is the first priority for all the agencies, and, in our sue-crazy society, any hint of dereliction of duty can be expensive.

Transplanting animals is too risky. Generally speaking, transplanted cougars are unlikely to stay where you put them. If they are habituated to humans, they may have the same problems in the new location.

I don't worry at all about being attacked by cougars, but I tend to avoid humans in the woods, if I see them first.

—Harley Shaw, Board of Directors
The Cougar Network
Author of Soul Among Lions and Mountain Lion Field Guide 
Hillsboro, New Mexico
 


BEING SAFE
Basic precautions are in order whenever you are in areas that provide habitat for lions (areas in the western U.S. with deer). We don't need to worry or be fearful—but we should be aware of our surroundings and know how to respond if there is an encounter. Know that lions are most active around dusk, during the night and dawn. Keep children in sight at all times, and enjoy the outdoors in a group of two or more.

If you do see a lion, don't run or crouch down; act big, yell, be assertive; a vast majority of the time the lion retreats in the other direction. If a lion attacks, fight back. Jim Hamm may have been unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he was with the right partner—his wife! He survived because the two of them fought back.
—Walter Boyce D.V.M., Ph.D.
Director, Wildlife Health Center
University of California-Davis
 


MAINTAINING A BALANCE
Mountain lions play a key role in maintaining the landscapes we love here in California and across the west.  A recent Oregon State University report details what happened in Zion National Park after the mountain lions were eliminated there.

Mountain lions play a key role in maintaining the landscapes we love here in California and across the west.  A recent Oregon State University report details how reduced cougar populations in Zion National Park led to higher mule deer populations, which increased deforestation and erosion, and damaged riparian environments (read the study >>).

Mountain lions avoid people, so the best advice is to look and act as human as possible. Hike or bike with a friend.  
—Karen Cotton, Director of Outreach
Mountain Lion Foundation



THE QUESTION OF RELOCATION
It is not the procedure here at Olympic to relocate problem animals, especially one that is habituated, or has behaved aggressively towards humans. Animals have an amazing ability to return to their home range, and if not, they will most likely repeat their behaviors on someone else's land.
—Patti Happe, Ph.D.
Wildlife Branch Chief
Olympic National Park
Washington


TOO MANY CATS?
What we have a huge problem with is the predation on wild animals, like deer and elk. A lot of people have a misconception that mountain lions will tend to kill the weak in a herd, or the small, like the fauns. In my experience, mountain lions prey on trophy bucks. It happens this way for a few reasons. After the rut, going into winter, bucks are very depleted energy-wise, and they recluse to little brush patches up by themselves [where they are vulnerable].

We have around 5,000 cougars in the state of Oregon. They say that a mountain lion will kill one animal a week and a female with kittens will kill up to three animals a week. So take 5,000 mountain lions and multiply it by, say, two animals a week and 52 weeks in a year. We're talking about 300,000 animals a year from the state of Oregon alone from mountain lion predation. You know, it's very frustrating to see all that wild game go downhill. I mean you can see the elk and deer populations absolutely plummet.
—Paul Ellis, Owner
Ellis Hunting Ranch
Pilot Rock, Oregon



THE DELICATE BALANCE
Until recently, ecologists had a poor understanding of how large carnivores such as wolves or cougars affect ecosystems. But the evidence is accumulating that these predators may affect both the population size and behavior of native grazing animals such as deer or elk. These predation effects, in turn, can alter plant communities that deer and elk feed on. In places where these types of cascades occur, large carnivores may have a positive affect on biodiversity.
—William J. Ripple, Professor
Department of Forest Resources
Oregon State University




WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
As suburban sprawl eats into their habitat and mountain bikers race through their hunting grounds, mountain lions are becoming more visible—and more lethal.
Related Articles:

Stalking the Spirit Lions Photos:
Man-Eating Lions in Tanzania >>


Gustave the Serial Killer Croc Photos:
Man-eating Crocodile >>


Fast facts about mountain lions >>


Text by Carl Hoffman

Republished as it appeared in the October 2004 issue of Adventure magazine

Subscribe to Adventure magazine now! >>


Nils Magnuson set out at dusk on the Cactus Hill Trail, part of a 6.8-mile (11-kilometer) loop of fire road and singletrack that snakes through Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. A stay-at-home dad, Magnuson was coming off a hectic day corralling his three young children and was looking forward to his regular ride as a workout, but also to clear his mind. January 8, 2004, was a typically gorgeous southern California day, and the winter sun began filling the sky with dramatic sunset color as he navigated his mountain bike through sagebrush and prickly pear cactus. Pedaling at an aggressive clip, Magnuson moved along nearly as swiftly, if not quite as gracefully, as the deer he glimpsed bounding through the chaparral.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park lies smack in the heart of Orange County. The park is a favorite of hundreds of deep-suburban mountain bikers who are lured by its easy access. If you can endure the mind-numbing traffic on I-5, you can pull off at the Bake Parkway exit, stash your car in front of the shiny Wal-Mart at the Foothill Ranch Town Center, and, five minutes later, zip into the park's wild interior. Magnuson likes Whiting Ranch so much he makes the 30-mile (48-kilometer) drive from Long Beach almost daily.

Just before 5 p.m. on January 8, Magnuson started across a section of the trail that rolls over the top of a crest, with shallow canyons on either side. Around one curve, he came upon a Cannondale F3000 leaning on a bush. That's odd, he thought. Who would abandon such an expensive rig?

Magnuson stopped, dismounted, and took a look around. Maybe the owner had stepped away to relieve himself? Or maybe he'd hit something and been thrown over the handlebars? He peered down the ravine. "Hey!" he yelled. "Anyone down there?"

The owner was nowhere to be found. Maybe something was wrong with the bike? He checked the tire pressure: full. And the chain: It was off the front sprocket, but otherwise the bike was ready to ride. What Magnuson couldn't have guessed was that the Cannondale had been lying there for nearly four hours. Its owner, Mark Reynolds, a competitive mountain biker, had reached this point on the run at approximately 1:25 p.m. Reynolds loved the Cactus Hill Trail as much as Magnuson but preferred to come at midday when he'd have the trail almost to himself. As Magnuson stood examining Reynolds' bike, he heard cyclists approaching. In no time, two women came zinging around a bend.

"I found a bike and I don't know where the rider is!" he shouted. The women shrugged, and were gone. Seconds later, Magnuson heard something he'd never heard before: "not a full scream, really, but a sound like someone's legs were being ripped off."

Long before Wal-Mart stores and mountain bikes, areas like Whiting Ranch were better known for hard-luck ranching and hardscrabble agriculture than for recreation. And to the region's original ranchers and hunters, the North American mountain lion—also known as the cougar, panther, puma, or catamount—was the worst kind of vermin, a stealthy killer that was believed to roam wide swaths of territory looking to pick off stray livestock. Weighing up to 200 pounds (91 kilogram) and reaching as long as eight feet (two meters) from tip to tail, mountain lions are so quiet and so secretive they might be phantoms. Capable of leaping 40 feet (12 meters) in a single bound and 15 feet (4.5 meters) straight up, a mature 140-pound (64-kilogram) male can bring down a bull elk weighing 600 pounds (272 kilograms), or drag an 800-pound (362-kilogram) horse 100 yards. Akin to giant house cats, mountain lions purr and hiss and spit, and, rather than roar, they growl, whistle, and screech. They are eating machines, and their favorite take-out in the western U.S. is the same deer and elk sought by big-game hunters. Ideally, an adult mountain lion needs to eat the equivalent of a deer every week; a mother with two cubs could use three. Until fairly recently, the lion was hunted with extreme prejudice. Between 1907 and 1978, hunters killed more than 66,000 lions in North America, 12,500 in California alone.

By the time Maurice Hornocker started studying mountain lions in the 1960s, the animals had all but disappeared east of the Mississippi outside a small pocket in the Florida Everglades and seemed headed for extinction in the rest of the country, too. Starting as a graduate student in 1963, Hornocker spent a decade following big cats across the wilds of Idaho, mostly through the snow. In an article he wrote years later for National Geographic, he recalled "living in tents in winter, tracking with dogs in often intense cold, then treeing, tranquilizing and recapturing" the same cats over and over to collect data on their behavior patterns. Hornocker would go on to achieve a series of notable successes, most famously assembling a joint U.S.–Soviet team dedicated to saving the Siberian tiger, but it is his painstaking work with mountain lions that has had the most lasting impact on the environment. These days, the silver-haired eminence of mountain lion biology spends his days in southern Idaho, working for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Hornocker's mountain lion findings countered two key myths that had driven the bounty hunting of the animal. He discovered that instead of roaming endlessly in search of prey, each lion was highly territorial and tended to maintain a strict area for feeding. Hornocker also found that rather than being a threat to big game such as deer and elk, as had been supposed, lions generally attacked animals that were sick, old, or still too young to reproduce. Where lion populations were stable, in fact, deer and elk herds thrived. Once the lions' vital role in the ecosystem was established, most states enacted legislation regulating the killing of mountain lions. Following intense lobbying by a coalition of environmental groups, Californians made mountain lions a protected species in 1990. Today, among conservationists fighting to protect one of America's largest carnivores, California is the shining success story: It's the only other state besides Florida where the recreational hunting of mountain lions is completely banned.

The ban's effect has been extraordinary. Believed to number just 5,000 throughout North America by the time Hornocker started studying them, biologists guess there may be 50,000 today, 5,000 or more in the most populous state in the union. "There are probably more lions in North America now than when Columbus hit our shores," says Hornocker. "They're in Nebraska and Kansas and pretty soon they'll be knocking on the door of the Mississippi."

The biggest factor in the lion's remarkable comeback, however, has been the parallel population explosion of its meal-ticket: deer, an animal that thrives in semi-suburbanized landscapes like those surrounding Whiting Ranch, eastern San Diego County's Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Colorado's Front Range, and Arizona's Sabino Canyon. In each of these locales, the human population has mushroomed in recent decades (the population in Orange County jumped from a little over 200,000 in 1950 to almost 3 million in 2003), and a highly marketable version of the pastoral life has flourished: houses with big lawns and gardens bordered by lots of trees, providing a perfect bounty and cover for Bambi.

"People like having deer around," says Walter Boyce, director of the University of California, Davis, Wildlife Health Center, "and deer can safely move across private property in close proximity to people without risk to their lives, or ours." Stalking deer, lions have come creeping around backyards and have begun to lie in wait right where people like to hike, ride, even tend their gardens. One big cat was shot and killed recently after it was discovered sleeping on the bough of a tree in residential Palo Alto, in Northern California. At least one has wandered into Griffith Park—home to the Hollywood sign. And in late June, Shannon Parker, a 27-year-old hiker from Santa Monica, lost her right eye and suffered a deep gouge in her right thigh when an emaciated female lion attacked her 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Kernville, between Bakersfield and Sequoia National Park. The cat ran off only after one of Parker's three companions stabbed it with a knife.

With lion populations continuing to rise, and increasing numbers exploring their shrinking habitat, it doesn't take a genius like Hornocker to predict the future. "There are more people and more lions, and thus more opportunity for people and lions to come into contact," he says. More confrontations, he adds, "are inevitable." But what to do about this inevitability is another matter, and the more time you spend in lion country, the more you realize how tricky—and potentially tragic—it will be for large numbers of lions and people to share the same turf.

Hearing the agonizing, muffled screams, Magnuson jumped on his bike and pedaled down the trail through an S-curve. At the end of this curve, on the right side and raised a few feet (less than a meter) over the trail, stands a bush six feet (two meters) high. Anne Hjelle, 30, one of the two women who'd passed Magnuson, was the first to reach it, her friend Debi Nicholls a good 30 yards (27 meters) behind. As she pedaled by the bush, it exploded. Hjelle saw a flash of reddish-brown, and in a single leap of muscle, fur, teeth, and claws, a lion was on her back, locking her helmeted head and neck within its jaws.

When Nicholls caught up to her, Hjelle was on her back, her helmet in the lion's mouth, the lion dragging her into the brush. Nicholls dismounted and threw her bike at the lion. She grabbed Hjelle's leg—and held on. For an instant, the lion released Hjelle's head but then bit her face, and resumed the tug of war with Nicholls.

"I'm going to die," Hjelle said.

"You're not. I will never let go."

"Dear God, dear God," Hjelle moaned, and blacked out.

When Magnuson pedaled up, he found Nicholls pulling on something in the bushes. Realizing it was her friend, and that Hjelle's head was engulfed in a lion's mouth, its white whiskers smeared with her blood, he grabbed a softball-size rock to throw at the cat.

Four other bikers—Mike Castellano, Diego Lopez, Jeremy Collins, and Duane Jenkins—arrived. As they frantically threw rocks at the lion, Magnuson pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. Finally, one of them hit the lion square on the head and it bounded off. Nicholls pulled Hjelle slightly up the slope. She was limp, a rag doll, the left side of her face mostly torn off.

Within minutes sirens wailed and the first of what would soon be several helicopters swept in low. Hjelle was whisked to a nearby hospital, where plastic surgeons began carefully reconstructing her face. (She has had subsequent surgery and has resumed cycling.) By now it was getting dark, but a second chopper spotted the lion squatting in the brush not far from its partially eaten, half-covered kill: Mark Reynolds, the owner of the abandoned Cannondale. An athletic 137-pound (62-kilogram), 35-year-old sports agent, Reynolds didn't get to put up a fight. He had been bitten on the back of his neck and had died of organ removal through a gaping hole 12 inches (30 centimeters) in diameter on the left side of his chest. The lion, a 110-pound (50-kilogram), 2-year-old male, was found later to have several pounds of human tissue in his stomach, including bits of Reynolds's lung and liver. Bob Turner, a recently retired lieutenant in the California Department of Fish and Game, who arrived at the scene soon after, says the animal was so full "he had a Buddha belly."

Sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion on the spot. Once a lion is deemed habituated to humans, there aren't many options. Officials are reluctant to trap and move lions elsewhere because a habituated lion is almost certain to attack again. In Reynolds's case, Turner says, "a lion sees a guy working on a bike, eats him, and says, 'That was the easiest meal I ever had.' So he's lying there by his kill and he wants another one. Lions don't have any sense of waste. When the opportunity comes, he'll take it, no matter how full he is. If we hadn't killed that lion he'd have never left that trail and there'd be a pile of mountain bikes a mile high [about two kilometers]."

The first thing wildlife biologists will tell you after such a grisly death is how rare lion attacks on humans are. Lion advocates like to cite bee stings and lightning strikes as far more common causes of mortality. (They're basically right: As this magazine went to press, Reynolds's was the only death by mountain lion thus far in 2004, while there are, on average, 40 deaths a year in the U.S. from insect stings and 45 from lightning strikes.)

But for Bob Turner, Reynolds's death came as no surprise. Turner's patrol area included Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Whiting Ranch. The park encompasses steep wooded hills and former ranchland that's ideally suited for recreation. Its 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) of meadow, chaparral, and rolling pine forest are a 45-minute drive from the beaches of San Diego, which is why, it seems, every kid in San Diego goes there for nature camp. Last year, the park attracted around 500,000 visitors, despite a massive fire in October 2003. In the past 20 years, these several thousand acres (about 1,214 hectares) may have seen more lion-human altercations than any place in the U.S. "We have a saying," says a rancher about Cuyamaca, quoted in the author Mike Davis's 1998 book The Ecology of Fear: " 'When you enter the park, you enter the food chain.' "

Turner was looking on when deputies shot dead the lion that killed Iris Kenna, a schoolteacher in her mid-50s, on Cuyamaca Peak in December 1994, just months after another lion had ambushed and killed 40-year-old Barbara Schoener a few hundred miles (about 483 kilometers) north—at the time, the first lion-attack fatalities in California in 83 years. The question on everyone's mind then—were Kenna and Schoener's deaths flukes, or were they prophetic?—is on everyone's mind again after the Reynolds killing and the maulings of Hjelle and Parker. While deaths from lion attacks in the U.S. remain rare, there's no question lion attacks are on the rise. Between 1974 and 1983, there were 15. From 1984 to 1993: 27. In the past decade, there have been at least 39.

To explore the matter, Turner suggested an interview in Paso Picacho Campground, in the center of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Turner, 52, is a natural storyteller who used to go to work each morning with a .40 on his hip. He brought along an album containing photos of Kenna and Schoener and other victims so graphic that he decided against showing them to me.

Turner started his career in 1971, spending four years studying bighorn sheep in adjacent Anza-Borrego State Park. "I was in the field all day long and I never saw a mountain lion, not one," he says, perched atop a picnic table. Then, in 1981, after six years as a ranger in Cuyamaca, he became a Fish and Game Warden. Soon after, mountain bikers hit Cuyamaca's trails, and Turner found himself engaged in an escalating skirmish. Between 1980 and 1985, he was called in to shoot two menacing lions. Between 1985 and 1990, he killed 20, over the next five years 34, and over the next half decade 46. (Anytime a lion threatens a person or snatches a sheep, goat, or house pet, the California Department of Fish and Game will issue a depredation permit to a hunter such as Turner, allowing for the cat to be killed.)

The fatalities, close calls, and frequent hunts of suspect lions have made officials like Turner wonder whether the animals are becoming habituated to humans. To find out, UC Davis' Walter Boyce and biologists from the university began a $500,000 study in 2000 to capture Cuyamaca's cats and fit them with GPS collars to compare their habits with those of the people using the park. For the latest results, Turner turns me over to Blue Millsap, a professional lion hunter from Trinity County, California. Usually one of the men who tracks and kills lions with depredation permits, Millsap is now working under contract with UC Davis to track and collar every last lion that moves through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. With new cats coming in all the time, it's an ongoing effort.

As we drive along in his pickup, Millsap pokes his head out of the window, scanning the dirt on the inside of every curve. Millsap, 53, wears blue jeans and a ripped green T-shirt. His ten Walker hounds are in a wooden cage in the pickup's bed, and when the wind is right, we get a full blast of their ripe smell. Mountain lions walk these roads at night, Millsap says, always "cutting the corners" to conserve energy. We're slowly cruising roads just outside the park's northern boundary, where a house appears every quarter mile (les than half a kilometer) or so, in search of an uncollared cat whose tracks Millsap and UC Davis biologists have been following for a while—"a big old tom," in Millsap's words.

Lion attacks may be rare, Millsap allows, but sometimes he thinks the lions just can't help themselves. "When I'm out with my grandkids, it's always in the back of my mind," he says. "I watch 'em close." Lions, he notes, are smart and opportunistic. "They'll take goats, dogs, and cats right off your back porch."

Within minutes, we spot the faint imprints of a lion's four round toes and heel pad. Millsap grabs a set of calipers on the dashboard: 50 millimeters (2 inches) wide. A male. "He's going right where I was figuring he'd go."

Millsap and I push on, following tracks into another creek bed, this time within sight of a house. A dog barks. Millsap bends over, studies the prints, listens to the dog, and shakes his head. "When you see 'em around places like this," he says, "they're hunting house dogs and cats. They got no other reason to be here."

Millsap's wariness notwithstanding, the findings from the UC Davis study have been encouraging for lion and human cohabitation. Within Cuyamaca, where 20 cats have been collared, the data shows that lions generally hunt at night when fewer people are around. In a place where no point is more than a few hundred yards (about 274 meters) from a trail, fire road, or campsite, lions tend to be closest to trails at night and farthest during the day. Rather than being attracted to people, in other words, the lions of Cuyamaca act just as biologists believe they should. The upswing in attacks and sightings has less to do with lions developing a taste for human flesh than it does with their extraordinary ability to adapt to almost any environment, in this case, one increasingly filled with active people.

But bikers like Magnuson and Anne Hjelle don't just ride in Whiting Ranch at high noon; they ride at sunset and even at night. And they move fast. Where it used to take a serious, well-prepared hiker hours to penetrate the depths of Cuyamaca, a cyclist can be in the park's most remote places within an hour.

"It's a catch-22," says biologist Linda Sweanor, a protégée of Hornocker who wrote the initial study in Cuyamaca. "If you live in the city, you lock your door and you don't let your kids walk around by themselves. We want to live and play in the wilderness, but we don't want to take those same sorts of precautions against big critters."

"Our use of the landscape is changing," says Jim Bauer, 35, a South Dakota native who is continuing Sweanor's research. "It wasn't long ago that this land was all ranches and rangeland. But now it's all recreation, and even the recreation is changing. People have to go mountain biking; it's like a religion. If we close a trail, people either ignore the closing or get upset. They say, 'This is my favorite trail and I drove all the way up here.' They don't like to have their access denied."

Really, they don't. Take, for example, Marla McCray, who lives next door to Whiting Ranch. McCray, 30, is typical of those who call Orange County home. For years, she and her husband battled the freeways to bike at Whiting; then one day they realized their dream, buying a house in the Foothill Ranch subdivision next to the park. The natural world was finally just steps away from their front door. But since Reynolds's death, McCray's been too scared to pursue her passion.

"I'm ashamed to admit it," she says, "but I see us as prey; we're an easy target."

McCray has tried to rally her neighbors to pressure the state to do something. "I love animals," she says, "and people say you can't just go kill 'em, that it's their home. But it's our home, too." She isn't pushing for the lions to be eliminated altogether but insists the park is currently overrun with them. Nils Magnuson, the rider who found Reynolds's bike, professes that he, too, loves animals, and especially cats. And he continues to ride in Whiting, but carries a knife. Forced to choose between mountain lions or mountain biking, he says, "I'd take biking, of course."

McCray and Magnuson are not in the majority—at least not yet. This past April, after a sudden surge of lion encounters (none fatal) in Sabino Canyon, a popular hiking and biking area near Tucson, Arizona, officials developed a plan to kill the aggressive lions. The public outcry against the planned hunt was so intense that it was canceled. Last year, UC Davis conducted a poll and learned that more than 70 percent of southern Californians favored having lions as part of the environment.

"The public understands that large predators play an important role in balancing nature and the ecosystem," says Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for Sinapu, a nonprofit carnivore conservation group based in Boulder, Colorado. Despite a few freak incidents, she adds, "the risk of attack is really low."
Hunting advocates like to say that hunting in and of itself teaches lions to avoid people, but Hornocker disagrees. "That doesn't hold water," he says. "There have been more attacks on Vancouver Island than anywhere else, and lions have been intensively hunted there for years." Even Bob Turner concedes the point. "What does a lion shot in a tree teach the general population?" he says. "Nothing."

As a middle step between hunts and park closures, Hornocker believes more research needs to be done on "aversive conditioning"—systematic, nonlethal efforts to make lions fear people. "We need to look at whether they can be trained to stay away from human development: say, using dogs at campgrounds or some other negative experience," he says. "But it might not work, and it has to be repeated over and over." Until such retraining becomes feasible, he says, "a lion habituated to people should be removed. If there's no good place to release it, it should be euthanized with no apologies."

Meanwhile, the hunting of lions has picked up. One conservation agency estimates that even in California, where they are protected, the state sanctions the killing of a lion every two and a half days.

"Realistically," says lion researcher Jim Bauer, "we are hunting mountain lions—by putting goats in our yards and by intense recreation through these areas—except now it's through depredation permits. If you want to live or recreate in mountain lion habitat, you'll end up taking out some lions."

On my last afternoon in Cuyamaca, Bauer and I go tracking. He exits the park and turns onto the main road. At the top of a ridge, as bikers roll by, he stops to fiddle with a radio receiver. For the past four days he and Millsap have been driving the park, searching for fresh lion tracks. But so elusive are the cats that we've only seen the tracks of that one old tom. Then, suddenly, Bauer's receiver picks something up. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. A collared female known as F-20 is below the ridge, probably resting by a kill with her two cubs.

"It's not that lions can't survive in places like this," Bauer says, with a note of optimism. "But a lion is capable and willing and able to eat us, and when we come into conflict, we know who ultimately loses. A lion needs a place where it can be a lion. And the urban fringe is marching. In 30 or 40 years," he says as he listens to the radio heartbeat of F-20, "it's hard to imagine any lions left in places like this."

"It's pretty tough to make a living and stay out of humans' way if you're a lion in southern California," Hornocker had told me. "In places like Orange County and Cuyamaca we will very likely lose them. There are realities in the world."

It's easy to vote against hunting mountain lions, not so easy to say you're willing to jettison your pet llamas or stop biking at sunset in Cuyamaca or Whiting Ranch. For passionate lion advocates, it's simply a matter of educating people about the risks inherent in the wild. Says Karen Cotton, director of outreach at the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation: "Every day when we step out our front door we accept a certain number of risks."

"Personally," says Walter Boyce, "I appreciate having that edge when I'm in the wilderness. But a lot of people want adventure without risk."

Others are clearly willing to accept it. The Saturday after Reynolds was killed, Whiting was closed, but Nils Magnuson rode nearby Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park. "It was weird," he says. "The attacks were like an advertisement that got a lot of people excited about mountain biking. I've never seen it so packed."        

Read the rest of the story by purschasing the October 2004 issue of Adventure. To order, click here >>






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