Cougar encounter

Advocates fear rare attack will spur an assault on the species

Sport hunting of cougars was prohibited in California in 1972.

Sport hunting of cougars was prohibited in California in 1972.

PHOTO Courtesy of u.s. fish and wildlife service

Go to to learn more about the big cats and the conservation work of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

A mountain lion attack two weekends ago on a 63-year-old camper in Nevada County left the victim scratched and bloodied. Now, cougar allies and advocates worry that the incident—the first California attack on a person since 2007—may generate unwarranted publicity and excitement over the presence of the big cats in a time when their numbers may be dropping.

“Every time an incident like this happens, people get excited,” said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, based in Sacramento. “Reported sightings jump like crazy, and the people who say these animals are ravenous monsters that need to be controlled by hunting, it just vindicates their efforts.”

The victim of the attack, who was camping alone on a tributary of the Yuba River, woke up before daybreak on Sunday, July 1, to find a mountain lion pawing and biting at his head, face and torso. The man scrambled from his sleeping bag and managed to push away the cat. The two faced off for between 15 and 30 seconds before the mountain lion turned and ran, concluding the two-minute-long incident, according to a report from the Department of Fish and Game.

The victim, who lives in Marin County but asked not to be identified, drove himself to a hospital in Grass Valley, and though his injuries were not life-threatening, the scratches and puncture wounds were “severe,” according to Mike Taugher, a DFG spokesman.

An effort to track down and kill the lion was unsuccessful and called off on Tuesday, July 10. The attack is an anomaly, as almost never before has a mountain lion, also called cougar or puma, attacked a sleeping person. Mountain lions, Dunbar said, more often stalk and pounce from behind—classic predatory behavior. Dunbar suspects the July 1 incident involved a cat driven by curiosity, not predatory motives.

“What bothers me is that this will even be listed as an ‘attack,’” Dunbar said. “It’s certainly the strangest attack I’ve ever heard of.”

Mountain lion attacks on people are extremely rare, and only 15—resulting in six fatalities—have occurred in California since 1890, according to Fish and Game records. No attacks have occurred in Lassen, Shasta, Plumas or Butte counties, though mountain lions do inhabit the region and are occasionally spotted.

In Chico, back in January 2010, a city press release warned residents that one of the big cats had been seen at Bidwell Park Golf Course. There were a couple of sightings last year as well, including one in May at Lower Park near the Manzanita Avenue bridge. The cat reportedly was gnawing on a deer carcass.

“It’s because [cougar attacks] are rare that they draw a lot of interest,” Taugher said. “You’re much more likely to get struck by lightning.”

Sport hunting of mountain lions has been illegal in California since 1972. At the time, an estimated 600 cougars lived in the state. Today, California is home to between 4,000 and 6,000 of the animals, according to Fish and Game estimates.

But California mountain lions may now be growing scarcer. Some experts believe the state’s cougar population peaked in the late 1990s and has been dropping ever since. Still, California is a stronghold for the species, which has vanished from most of its former American range. Once occurring coast to coast, cougars exist today in only 14 states, and development, habitat encroachment and hunting could threaten their future.

Each year in California, scores of mountain lions are legally shot or trapped after allegedly killing pets or livestock. Such killings are allowed via depredation permits issued by the Department of Fish and Game. Mendocino County leads the state with such killings, with 317 between 1972 and 2009, according to DFG reports. In Butte County, just 15 cougars had been killed via depredation permits in the same time period; in Shasta County, 120; Plumas County, 49; and in Lassen County, 43. State records show that depredation killings of mountain lions peaked in 2000, when 148 cougars were shot statewide.

Since then, these lawful killings have declined—evidence, perhaps, of the declining population.

Dunbar said he believes that depredation killings indicate a lack of human willingness to live with California’s native wildlife. He would rather see people “learn how to take care of [their] pets and livestock,” instead of hunting and killing cougars for behaving naturally. He and other cougar advocates fear that, with the state’s human population rising, the long-term future of the mountain lion could be at stake.

“There’s essentially no mountain lion population east of the Rockies,” Dunbar said, “and last year the Eastern cougar was listed as extinct. California is the only state still with a ban on mountain lion hunting, but even here, mortality has gone up drastically. They seem to be struggling.”