Sacramento — Federal contract hunters employed by the California Department of Fish & Game may not use poison, snares, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps to kill mountain lions, even when the lions pose a threat to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, according to a new Legislative Counsel opinion released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The opinion was requested by Senate Natural Resources Chairwoman Fran Pavley after PEER relayed internal reports that mountain lions were being killed inhumanely and unnecessarily by federal contract hunters.
The state Department of Fish & Game (DFG) pays federal Wildlife Services, an ironically named arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $600,000 under a three-year contract to capture and kill predator species. California law bans the use of poison, snares, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps, but DFG and Wildlife Services believed the federal agents were not bound by California law. PEER has received information that Wildlife Services contractors were directed by DFG managers to –
- A shoot-on-sight protocol which directs ”removal” of any mountain lion entering bighorn winter ranges even though the likelihood of predation remains low in some areas;
- Disregard a previous protocol that prohibited the killing of a female lion without first determining if she has dependent offspring, resulting in the inhumane death of kittens by exposure and starvation; and
- Ignore the bans on snares which voters enacted more than 20 years ago under Proposition 117, which designated the mountain lion as a specially protected mammal.
“California voters have created these protections for mountain lions,” Said Senator Pavley. “The Legislative Counsel opinion affirms that even federal employees must obey California law.”
“Scarce state dollars should not be used to sterilize the Sierras of all mountain lions,” stated California PEER Director Karen Schambach, noting that the new DFG protocol goes well beyond the requirements of the Bighorn Recovery Plan, which prescribes adverse conditioning to discourage lions from preying on sheep and limits killing to mountain lions which have actually eaten a bighorn. “The current shoot-on-sight policy is both coarse and counterproductive. It essentially ignores the likelihood that indiscriminately destroyed mountain lions that are not preying on sheep will be replaced by immigrant lions with a taste for bighorns.”
In a May 21, 2010 letter, PEER urged DFG to rewrite its protocols to end inhumane practices and reduce needless lion killings but the agency has yet to respond. The new Legislative Counsel opinion affirms that it is illegal for even state and federal employees to harm or kill a mountain lion, except when a lion poses a threat to public safety or livestock, or harms animals protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep are listed as endangered under the ESA.
“Protecting bighorns does not require wiping out mountain lions,” added Schambach. “In these tough fiscal times, we should ask whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from this contract with Wildlife Services.”