A recent rise in mountain lion sightings is a reminder that the north state is cougar country, but game wardens say the big cats rarely pose a danger to people.
In the past three months at least four sightings have been reported in Red Bluff and at least three have been reported in Redding. Only nine cat sightings were logged in Shasta County last year and Tehama County had only one.
Only one of the recent reports involved the death of an animal and none involved an attack on a person.
“Attacks on people are extremely, extremely rare,” said Aaron Galwey, a California Department of Fish and Game warden.
DFG data supports Galwey’s claim about the rarity of cougar attacks on people, with 16 recorded statewide since 1890 and none since a cougar attacked a man in January 2007 in Humboldt County. Of those attacks, four were fatal and in two others the victims eventually died of rabies.
Only one of the attacks was in the north state, and it was the state’s first recorded attack. A mountain lion killed a 7-year-old boy in Siskiyou County’s Quartz Valley in 1890, according to DFG records. Orange County in Southern California has seen the most attacks, with two in 1986 and two in 2004. One of the victims, a 35-year-old man, was killed in January 2004. The other three survived.
Despite the data, mountain lion sightings often cause people to worry and call wardens to ask them to remove the animal. But it takes more for wardens to take action.
“Sightings alone are never enough,” said Patrol Lt. Scott Willems, who oversees three wardens in western Shasta County and three wardens in Tehama County. “There has to be some type of overt action by the cat.”
That action is usually the maiming or killing of livestock or pets. Attacks on livestock are much more common than attacks on people, and DFG records for depredation permits show it. The permits allow people whose animals were attacked by cougars to kill the animal.
In the north state — Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity counties — the DFG issued 778 depredation permits for mountain lions from 1972 until the end of last year, and 393 of the big cats were killed.
Obtaining a permit to kill a cougar isn’t easy, said Dana Michaels, a DFG spokeswoman. She said a DFG warden has to verify that a mountain lion attacked or killed the person’s animal. Wardens collect fur samples, paw prints and other evidence to determine if a cougar was really the culprit.
“If you want to kill to a mountain lion you need to get a permit and have a really good reason for killing it,” Michaels said.
Hunting mountain lions in the state is illegal — state lawmakers established a moratorium in 1972 and an outright ban was imposed in 1990, she said.
Since those have been in effect 635 of the 5,551 depredation permits issued in the state were in Mendocino County. The county has had the highest number of cougars killed from 1972 until the end of last year, with 317 of 2,366.
In Shasta County most mountain lion depredation permits are issued to people who live in rural areas. Of the 72 permits issued in the county since 1998, 14 were near Oak Run, nine near Igo, nine near Shingletown and seven near Whitmore.
But cougars will come close to larger cities, like Redding, as well.
Shasta County’s most recent depredation permit, which resulted in a cougar kill, came this month near a home on Old Oregon Trail and Old Alturas Road just east of Redding.
On Oct. 8 the mountain lion killed a 75-pound goat named Honey Sue at a home near the intersection. After the women who owned the goat obtained a depredation permit a trapper with the U.S. Department of Agriculture trapped the 2½-year-old mountain lion and killed it on Oct. 11.
The goat’s owners declined an interview request by the Record Searchlight. They did say they were sad the cougar was killed but didn’t want to lose any more animals.
Willems, the DFG lead warden, said people can track down a cougar themselves if they have a depredation permit, but most call in a trapper because they’ll have a better chance of finding and killing the cat.
Finding a mountain lion, or any evidence that one really was spotted, can prove difficult, said Pete Figura, a DFG wildlife biologist.
In the week after the trapper killed the cougar off Old Oregon Trail, reports came in to DFG of a mountain lion stalking the Gold Hills neighborhood in north Redding. The reports were enough to prompt a warning from the Redding Police Department that people in Gold Hills should kept their pets in at night and watch out for the big cat.
But Figura said DFG scientists and wardens couldn’t find any signature signs of cougars.
“We didn’t see any scat or any dead animals,” he said.
Willems said tales of the Gold Hills cougar were essentially a rumor that got blown out of proportion.
“We were never able to confirm that there was a mountain lion,” he said.
He doesn’t doubt that people will see cougars around the north state though, as has been the case this year in Red Bluff where there have been a number of confirmed sightings this year. Mountain lions are most often seen in greenbelts, bands of undeveloped land linked to wilderness.
“All these creeks that run through town are just natural animal thoroughfares,” Willems said. “ Lions are around.”
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