Predator or prey?

Recent mountain lion incident has conservationists worried about species’ future

Experts say California’s cougar population peaked in the late ’90s. A recent attack near Nevada City has conservationists worried for the species.

Experts say California’s cougar population peaked in the late ’90s. A recent attack near Nevada City has conservationists worried for the species.

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 own 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 to 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 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 communications officer with the Department of Fish and Game.

The attack is an anomaly of a sort. Almost never before in California has a mountain lion, also called cougar or puma, attacked a sleeping person. Mountain lions, according to Dunbar, 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. Since 1890, only 15 people have been bitten or scratched by wild mountain lions in California. Six of the attacks were fatal.

“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 living coast to coast, cougars exist today in only 14 American states, and development, habitat encroachment and hunting could threaten their future.

Currently, Fish and Game officials are tracking, with the intention of killing, the mountain lion responsible for the July 1 attack. Taugher notes that cougars that have attacked once are more likely to attack a second time.

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.

Dunbar 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.”