Mountain lion practices questioned by PEER group
Is the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) violating its own California code? A watchdog group known as Public Employees for Environmental Protection, or PEER, thinks so, and in at least one area of the group’s concerns, the Legislative Counsel of California agrees.
In a letter dated May 10, 2010, PEER wrote to DFG Director John McCamman citing two major concerns, among others. First, PEER pointed out that it thinks the Department’s Bishop Office had adopted a predator control protocol for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program (SNBSRP) that “is not only inhumane and excessive, but also violates the State Fish and Game Code,” in relation to mountain lions. (The concern was brought to light by a DFG employee who was, and continues to be punished for taking action; a violation of the State’s Whistleblower Protection Act, according to PEER.)
Second, PEER stated that through its contract with the USDA’s Wildlife Services Program, DFG was violating Fish and Game Code 4809 when it directed the Wildlife Service hunters to use leg snares to kill lions. The code prohibits the use of poison, leg-hold, or metal-jawed traps and snares to remove or take any mountain lion.
The DFG entered into a contract with Wildlife Services on July 1, 2008, for just under $600,000. The payment is in exchange for, among other things, performance of predator management tasks, including the removal, as required, of mountain lions. The contract expires in June of this year.
PEER, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals working for environmental enforcement, did not hear back from the DFG until this year after it sent out a press release announcing the opinion of the Legislative Counsel in the matter. The opinion was requested by Senate Natural Resources Chairwoman Fran Pavley after PEER relayed internal reports that it believed mountain lions were being killed inhumanely and unnecessarily by federal contract hunters.
Pavley specifically asked whether or not the prohibition against taking a mountain lion by poison, leg-hold, or metal-jawed traps, applies to an employee or federal agency that is removing a mountain lion under contract with the DFG to protect the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep.
In a seven-page report, the Legislative Counsel replied, yes, Fish and Game Code 4809 does apply to an employee or federal agency such as Wildlife Services.
“We did get a letter back [from McCamman] after the press release,” PEER California Field Director Karen Schambach told The Sheet. “The letter said they were not using snares anymore, but really nothing’s changed.”
What she meant was that all of PEER’s other issues are still on the table, including the primary concern of inhuman protocol that PEER points to in a memorandum issued in February 2010 by DFG biologist Tom Stephenson. The memorandum discusses predator management protocol for the “Northern Recovery Unit.” This area in the Sierra Nevada includes the Mt. Warren and Mt. Gibbs herds, which remain small and would be greatly affected by any mountain lion predation.
The memorandum states that while the threat of predation in this area remains low, “if mountain lions are observed using occupied bighorn ranges they will be removed.” PEER points to this sentence as “shoot-on-sight protocol,” which violates the intent of SNBSRP.
DFG Public Information Officer Andrew Hughan confirmed in an e-mail to The Sheet that the term “removed” does mean killing the animal, but denied that the protocol was a shoot-on-sight policy.
“It’s a Predator Management Protocol that the federal government has authorized if a mountain lion poses an imminent threat to the endangered bighorn sheep,” he wrote. “There is a protocol to determine when mountain lions pose an imminent threat to bighorn sheep. The policy is there to clarify when there is a threat to the endangered sheep.”
Hughan went on to say that Stephenson’s program does not violate code “because the removal of a mountain lion is specifically allowed if it is deemed to pose a threat to an endangered species. It does not need to actually kill the sheep, just pose a threat. It’s a fine line, but the code is clear because the bighorn sheep is federally protected and endangered.”
Hughan also confirmed that since the Legislative Counsel’s opinion regarding leg snares was released “… certain practices have been suspended while federal and state officials continue to evaluate the best methods to ensure the population of the endangered sheep.”
The SNBSRP was created in 2007 to protect and grow the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep population, which was deemed an endangered species in 2000. The plan, according to PEER, is intended to be accomplished while protecting an intact ecosystem.
As part of the recovery plan, predators, and in this case, mountain lions specifically are closely monitored to keep them from preying on the sheep. While the lions primarily prey on deer, it is not uncommon for them to prey switch to the endangered sheep.
Mountain lions, while not endangered, seem to have a special place in the hearts of California voters, who in 1990 passed Proposition 117, which made it illegal for anyone, even wildlife managers to kill them unless they directly threatened humans or livestock. One exception to Prop was 117 has since been approved, which allows wildlife managers to kill mountain lions deemed an imminent threat to the Sierra Nevada Bighorn population.
Hughan concluded, “This is a complex issue with multiple agencies and jurisdictions, negotiation within the various agencies is continuing, and the Department of Fish and Game as the lead agency, hopes to resolve the issues in a timely manner and in a way that continues the successful recovery of the endangered bighorn sheep in California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.”
“I can’t say if we will take legal action, but we are going to try and get them to address the issues,” Schambach added.