Torrey Pines State Park Visitors Center Photo by Barbara Barnes
Mountain Lions and California State Parks
Kenneth W. Umbach, Ph.D.
Posted December 19, 1996
In respose to an inquiry by Senator David G. Kelley, the California Research Bureau prepared this brief discussion of mountain lions in California and of contact between mountain lions and people in state parks. The paper was originally published on January 19, 1994, and has been reformatted somewhat for Web posting.
Overview. Although encounters between people and mountain lions are rare, they have sometimes resulted in serious injury or death. Encounters with aggressive mountain lions have led to recent temporary closures of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County. The California Department of Parks and Recreation is currently developing a policy for managing mountain lions in state parks and for determining when encounters with a mountain lion call for closure of a state park. This paper summarizes mountain lion numbers and habitat in California, data on mountain lion attacks, contrasts between bear and mountain lion behavior, and other selected background. The paper includes an annotated bibliography.
Torrey Pines State Park Visitor Photo by Barbara Barnes
CALIFORNIA'S MOUNTAIN LIONS
What is a mountain lion?
The mountain lion, also known as puma or cougar, is a member of the cat family. It is formally called Felis concolor. (The terms cougar and mountain lion are used interchangeably below.) Mountain lions are found from British Columbia to the southern tip of South America. They are large animals, ranging in size from 100 to 170 pounds and from 5 to 8 feet in length, including the tail. Unlike wolves, adult mountain lions are solitary. They do not live or travel in packs.
What type of habitat do mountain lions prefer?
Mountain lions live in much of western North America, in mountains, foothills, and valleys. They live where they can find cover (for stalking) and large prey--deer or elk. Where there are suitable prey and cover, there are probably mountain lions.
Mountain lions avoid open grasslands and row-crop agricultural areas. They seek areas with woody vegetation and few people.
Researchers have found home ranges in California to be about 25 to 290 square miles for adult mountain lions, depending on terrain and other factors. Males typically have larger ranges than females. Adult male ranges overlap little, but adult female home ranges typically overlap. Areas too small to accommodate these home ranges cannot support cougar populations unless the areas are connected to one another by suitable corridors of vegetation to provide a large enough accessible area in the aggregate. Habitat fragmentation, therefore, is as great a threat (or a greater one) to cougar survival than is loss of habitat per se.
How has California's mountain lion population changed?
Because it is very difficult to count mountain lion populations accurately, no reliable historical figures exist. It is, however, reasonable to believe that sport hunting of cougars (now banned in California), predator control activities, and the spread of cities, farms, and roads have significantly reduced California's cougar population over the past century or more. (Note: According to Kevin Hansen, of the Mountian Lion Foundation, an estimated 12,500 mountain lions were killed for predator control purposes between 1907 and 1972.)
How many now exist in California?
In 1984, California's mountain lion population was estimated to be between 4,100 and 5,700. (Beier and Barrett, p. 5, citing Mansfield, 1986.) Estimates are difficult to make because mountain lions avoid people and, once grown, are generally solitary animals.
Where are they found?
The known range of cougars includes all of California. They do not live in urban areas or row-crop agricultural areas, but are found in urban fringes, including parts of Orange and Los Angeles counties, as well as in rural areas. A young cougar leaving its mother to establish its own home range may cross areas in which it would not ultimately settle. Such cougars, called "transients," are the most likely to encounter humans and to behave unusually because they have not fully developed their hunting skills. Within the last few years one cougar was captured in Orangevale (1990) and another in Fair Oaks (1993). Both are growing, populated areas of Sacramento County that still contain open space and wooded acreage.
What is the impact of shrinking habitat?
The growth of cities and the spread of human populations into cougar habitat brings people closer to cougars. Those phenomena also put that animal at risk. University of California researchers Paul Beier and Reginald H. Barrett summarize their findings in an Orange County study:
The cougar population [in] the Santa Ana Mountain Range is clearly in jeopardy of becoming extinct due to habitat loss and fragmentation .... Vehicle mortalities associated with increased highway traffic due to urban growth also impact the population .... However, even if vehicle-caused deaths were eliminated, the population will not survive continued massive loss of habitat....
There is no evidence that habitat loss and fragmentation cause cougars to become aggressive toward humans, or habituated toward humans. [Beier and Barrett, 1993, p. 88.]
It seems reasonable to assume similar patterns would exist in other cougar habitat areas affected by urbanization and highway growth.
CONTACTS BETWEEN MOUNTAIN LIONS AND PEOPLE
How many sightings have been reported and confirmed?
Sightings as such are not necessarily tabulated, although, "Since mid-June, rangers have logged at least 15 unverified sightings [at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park]." (La Rue, September 6, 1993.) Many sightings are undoubtedly not reported to rangers or wildlife personnel because there is no need to do so when one of the cats is seen in its natural habitat. State Park Ranger Shane Coles noted that all that most people will see of a cougar--if they see it at all--is the unthreatening sight of its tail "disappearing into the woods." One expert believes that many reported sightings are false because cougars are so stealthy and inclined to avoid people. People may mistake a bobcat or other animal for a cougar, he believes.
A Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist, Tim Dillingham, believes that recent increases in reported mountain lion sightings and contacts reflect three circumstances. The first is greater awareness of mountain lions in the wake of 1990's Proposition 117, which enacted mountain lion protections in California. People are more likely to report sightings as a result. The second is that more people are venturing into lion habitat--hiking, camping, and biking. Mountain bikers, increasingly common in some parks, can travel farther than hikers, and so are more likely to encounter lions. The third is the loss of mountain lion habitat to urban growth. Increasingly, parks offer the best available habitat. He also noted that increases in the deer population in the Cuyamaca area over the last few years may have led to a corresponding increase in mountain lions, which are deer predators. In addition, "Cuyamaca is almost a movement corridor," with campgrounds and trails through which young, transient lions seeking their own territory are likely to move. (Note: It is possible that last year's  fires in Southern California might have caused some movement of lions from Orange County to San Diego County. However, that is only speculation, and seems unlikely given the freeways and other roads and development in the way.)
It may not be uncommon for hikers to come near a cougar without being aware of it. Beier and Barrett cite a few instances in which researchers observed hikers near, but unaware of, radio-tagged cougars that the researchers were tracking from a distance.
Documented attacks on humans by mountain lions in the U.S. and Canada are rare. In December 1993, Kevin Hansen, Science Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, provided a list of attacks recorded from 1990 through 1993. Two were fatal, one in Idaho Springs in January 1991 and one in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, May 1992. Nine non-fatal attacks were listed for the four years. Four of those were in California: Grass Valley, March 1992; Gaviota State Park, April 1992; Los Padres National Forest, August 1993, and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, September 1993. The latter case, which followed a two-week closure of the park in response to a previous encounter, led to the tracking and killing of the mountain lion believed to have attacked the girl.
In a 1991 journal article, University of California researcher Paul Beier listed "53 cougar attacks on humans in the United States and Canada from January 1, 1890 through December 31, 1990 (101 years) ...." Some attacks involved two victims. Beier contrasted the record of cougar attacks to other risks:
Each year in the U.S. there are about 12 human deaths resulting from over 5,000 bites by rattlesnakes ..., 40 deaths due to bee (Hymenoptera) stings, and 3 deaths due to bites of black widow spiders .... Dogs annually kill 18-20 people and inflict suture-requiring injuries on 200,000 U.S. residents .... In a single recent year (1979) there were 86 U.S. deaths due to lightning strikes .... Thus cougar attacks are much rarer than other hazards from animals or nature. Nonetheless, these attacks have increased in the last 2 decades, probably because of increased numbers of cougars and humans during that time.... Simultaneously, human use of wildlands has grown, increasing the potential for encounters. [Beier, 1991, pp. 409-410.] Beier asserts that "there is no evidence that cougars are more likely to attack humans in unhunted areas [such as California]. Indeed, 57% of the attacks occurred in British Columbia, where about 200 cougars are killed annually by hunters and predator control agents ...." (Beier, 1991, p. 410.)
What happens when a mountain lion is sighted in a state park?
Ordinarily, no special action is required because cougars are rarely aggressive toward humans. They are reclusive, and usually avoid contact with people. Absent evidence of a cougar's aggressiveness or unacceptable willingness to be near people, it is not necessary to respond to sightings.
Contact with an aggressive cougar is another matter. Illness, injury, or previous contact with humans may have reduced that cougar's natural tendency to avoid people. In such a case, officials must capture, relocate, or if necessary kill the cougar to prevent future injury or death to park visitors. Park officials closed Cuyamaca Rancho State Park for two weeks in September 1993 after a cougar chased two horseback riders, behavior that was considered unacceptable. The cougar subsequently attacked a girl and her dog.
What judgments have been issued against the State as a result of mountain lion attacks?
The parents of a child mauled by a cougar in Gaviota State Park on March 12, 1992, are suing the State. The boy's father, brought to the scene by the boys' brothers, "hit the cougar on the head with a rock, causing the cougar to retreat," according to Paul Beier's summary of the incident. The boy is recovering from the injuries.
Although not issued against the State, a $2,000,000 judgment was awarded in August 1991 against Orange County to the family of a girl (Laura Small) injured by a cougar in Caspers Regional Park in 1986. (Note: The amount was later reduced to $1,500,000 out of court during appeal.) The reason for that award, however, was that the county failed to warn park visitors about the danger of cougars in the park. If the county had provided clear and adequate warnings, it might not have been found liable. The county's liability for asserted negligence was at issue, not the cougar attack as such.
Are bears treated differently from mountain lions?
Bears and mountain lions differ in an important way. We cannot control mountain lions' behavior, nor do we particularly attract them by what we do. Bears, on the other hand, are omnivores. Campers and picnickers attract them by leaving out food. If park visitors never leave food where bears can find it, then bears stay away. Bears that associate food with people become dangerous. They will return, and can become threatening.
Mountain lions are carnivores, uninterested in sandwiches and potato salad. They are also usually easily frightened away by people. In contrast, bears will come for those sandwiches and potato salad, and will not run away from a noisy person, but rather may attack. Mountain lions may, however, come to prey on raccoons and opossums that feed on food left out by humans, when deer are not available.
Bears are responsible for a considerable amount of property damage. Bears are remarkably clever, and have learned to recognize where food may be found. They break into coolers, and even into automobiles, especially if food or a cooler is visible. They also have an acute sense of smell that aids in their search. Bears even recognize uniformed park rangers and know the sound of park rangers' vehicles, and avoid both. Mountain lions do not exhibit similar behavior.
State wildlife officials have had to kill many bears that have become used to people and that pose a threat. One task of park rangers is to warn visitors not to leave food out and to make them understand that "a fed bear is a dead bear." Similar warnings would be irrelevant where mountain lions are concerned. Likewise, bear-proof food lockers could reduce bear incidents, but would have no effect on mountain lions.
HOW SHOULD PEOPLE RESPOND TO A MOUNTAIN LION?
Mountain lions ordinarily approach unseen and kill by a bite to the back of the neck that severs the spinal cord. Their teeth and claws are adapted to this method. A a person confronting a mountain lion should not turn away, should not run, should not crouch, and should not "play dead." Doing any of those things gives a person a profile like the mountain lion's prey and gives the lion an opportunity to strike at the back of the neck. The only exception might be when a person can reach safety very quickly, as by entering a door only a few feet away.
Rather, it is best to stand up, spread arms, coat, and so on, and face the lion--look as large as possible. Yelling and other noise-making can frighten the lion away. Throwing objects at the lion can help to drive it away. If attacked, a person should fight back aggressively. Hikers might be well advised to carry a police whistle or a small air horn--and perhaps a sturdy walking stick--for use in such encounters.
HOW DO CLOSURES AFFECT CONCESSIONAIRES IN AND NEAR STATE PARKS?
Newspaper reports about the September 1993 Cuyamaca Rancho State Park incident (San Diego County) cited revenue losses to local businesses. Because that closure began during the normally busy Labor Day weekend, the impact could have been significant. Business owners quoted in the reports claimed declines of 50 to 60 percent from expected levels. Even businesses not in the closed areas (around Cuyamaca Lake, north of the park, for example) were affected. Visitors did not know that those areas remained open, according to business operators quoted in newspaper articles.
There appears to be no definite way to document the loss of customers or profits during the closure, in part because customers lost to one place might have gone to another, or might return at a later date. All that is available at this time is anecdotal evidence and assertions, such as those reported in newspaper articles. The impact of that closure was affected by the length of the closure (two weeks) and by its beginning during the Labor Day weekend. A shorter or more limited closure, especially during a less busy period, would presumably have had less of an impact.
Closures also affect the revenues of the parks themselves. A Department of Parks and Recreation staff member, Carl Drake, estimated that the September closure of Cuyamaca cost the department about $60,000 in lost revenue. The majority of the department's funding is from user fees, not the General Fund.
There are no stores, restaurants, or similar concessions within that park itself, only a shower concession for soiled hikers, bikers, and campers.
Park closures on account of animal attacks are rare. Parks are more likely to be closed on account of plague, fire, or the need to use the park as a staging area for fighting fires elsewhere. Closure for any of these reasons can affect businesses in and near the affected park.
HOW SHOULD STATE AGENCIES RESPOND TO MOUNTAIN LION SIGHTINGS OR CONTACTS?
Any policy affecting the state parks should be consistent with the mission statement of the Department of Parks and Recreation:
The Mission of the California Department of Parks and Recreation is to provide for the health, inspiration, and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunitites for high-quality outdoor recreation.
Parks--especially wilderness parks--are natural settings, with the unique opportunities and risks that accompany such settings. The opportunity to swim, climb, hike, camp, and view wildlife in parks comes with some hazards. Swimmers may drown, climbers and hikers may fall, and campers and other park visitors may encounter dangerous wildlife. Park managers cannot eliminate these risks without hindering attainment of the values served by the parks. However, park rules do seek to reduce some dangers, as by prohibiting diving, restricting fires to park stoves and fireplaces, prohibiting loaded firearms except in approved hunting areas, and restricting horseback riding to special trails. (The department's "Official Guide to California State Parks" mentions all of these kinds of limits and rules.)
As noted above, sighting of a mountain lion in typical mountian lion habitat is not itself cause for any special response. Contact with an aggressive lion is another matter. Poor prospects for relocation of troublesome lions limit that option. Survival rates are not high for relocated lions, and there is no suitable place in the state for relocation of a problem lion. Although California law (Proposition 117, June 1990) protects mountain lions, lions may be captured or killed for cause. A newspaper report quoted Supervising Ranger Laura Itogawa, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, as saying, "We will accept lions who, if seen by someone, will look back and then move away. If a lion approaches someone or shows aggressive behavior, we won't accept that." (Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1993.)
Wildlife is an emotional issue for many people. The Governor and the Department of Parks and Recreation received several hostile and highly critical letters as a result of the killing of a mountain lion at Cuyamaca in September 1993. One writer exclaimed "Rangers murder cats + you [the governor] approve!" Another writer felt that the park had been reopened "prematurely." Another advocated removing people before removing animals, and advised "Leave the lion alone!!" However, Kevin Hansen, Science Director of The Mountain Lion Foundation and a strong advocate for mountain lions, felt that park officials handled the incident correctly.
The Department of Parks and Recreation does not currently [January 1994] have an explicit policy regarding closure of parks when there is a threat from a mountain lion. State parks have encountered such a threat only rarely. In 1992, Gaviota State Park (Santa Barbara County) was closed for about two weeks as a result of a mountain lion threat. In September 1993, Cuyamaca State Park (San Diego County) was closed for two weeks while rangers searched for a lion that had behaved abnormally. After the park reopened, the lion bit a girl and scratched her dog. Rangers found the lion and killed it.
On New Year's Day, 1994, another lion menaced mountain bikers in Cuyamaca. Park officials briefly closed parts of the park, but as of January 6 had reopened it in the belief that the lion had left the area.
As of this writing (January 1994), department staff is drafting a policy for dealing with threatening mountain lions. Staff will consult with the Department of Fish and Game, Department of Food and Agriculture, and university researchers before the policy is completed. The policy, expected to be completed by spring of 1994, is not to be a formal regulation, but it will be public information. For information on the draft and an opportunity to comment, contact Carl Drake, Aquatic and Public Safety Supervisor, Department of Parks and Recreation (916) 653-5787 (CALNET 453-5787). Mr. Drake stated that the draft policy is not confidential, and that comments are welcome.
Sensible guidelines would seem to include public education about mountain lions, cautions to visitors to lion habitat, and removal of aggressive lions, including killing of specific lions that pose a demonstrated threat to human life, when relocation is not a feasible choice. (Note: A Department of Parks and Recreation staff member familiar with the January 1994 Cuyamaca incident pointed out that warnings to park visitors had proven effective in that case. The mountain bikers chased the lion away by following the recommendations given by park staff.) Conditions justifying temporary closure of a state park should be spelled out in publicly developed and adopted policies for park safety. Such policies should encompass health and safety risks from all significant and reasonably foreseeable dangers, not just the risk posed by aggressive mountain lions. At the same time, the policies must recognize that the unique opportunities afforded by the parks entail some corresponding risks, and that those risks cannot be eliminated if the mission of the parks is to remain intact.
Banks, Leo. "City Dwellers in a Desert Get Some Frequent Wild Guests," Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1993, p. A5. Brief report on encounters with cougars, javelinas, rattlesnakes, and gila monsters in the Tucson, Arizona, area.
Beier, Paul, and Reginald H. Barrett. The Cougar in the Santa Ana Mountain Range, California. Final report of the Orange County Cooperative Mountain Lion Study, June 1, 1993. Available from the California Department of Fish and Game.
Beier, Paul. "Cougar Attacks on Humans in the United States and Canada," Wildlife Society Bulletin, 19:403-412, 1991. Reprinted in The Cougar in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Beier, Paul. "Cougar Attacks on Humans: An Update and some Further Reflections," published in Proc. 15th Vertebrate Pest Conference (J.E. Borrecco & R.E. Marsh, Editors), published at University of California, Davis, 1992. Reprinted in The Cougar in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Bolgiano, Chris. "Concepts of Cougar: The Mountain Lion in Myth, Memory, and Life," Wilderness, Summer 1991, pp. 26-33.
Braun, Clait E., editor. Mountain Lion-Human Interactions. Proceedings of an April 24-26, 1991, symposium and workshop sponsored by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Available from the Division.
California Department of Fish and Game. "Living with California Mountain Lions," brochure published by the Department.
Clark, Cheryl L. "Huffy Mountain Lion Threatens Biker Trio; Cuyamaca Area Shut," San Diego Union Tribune, January 3, 1994.
Creekmore, Charles. "The Paradox Called Cougar," National Wildlife, December 1991-January 1992, pp. 22-25.
Dutcher, Jim (photographer). "The Secret Life of America's Ghost Cat," National Geographic, July 1992, pp. 38-51. Photo essay.
Hansen, Kevin. Cougar: The American Lion. Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing, 1992. Illustrated with maps, charts, drawings, and photographs. Hansen is Science Director of The Mountain Lion Foundation, Sacramento, California.
Hornocker, Maurice G., with photos by George F. Mobley. "Learning to Live with Mountain Lions," National Geographic, July 1992, pp. 52-65.
La Rue, Steve. "Feisty Lion Clears Out Busy Park," San Diego Union-Tribune, September 6, 1993, p. A-1.
Lait, Matt. "Parents of Mauled Girl Assail Park Restriction Policy: Couple, attorney contend that no-minors rule at Caspers is attempt to overturn $2-million verdict," Los Angeles Times (Orange County edition), February 12, 1992, p. B12. Summarizes the Laura Small case and its aftermath, the closure of Caspers Wilderness Park to minors.
Los Angeles Times (staff writer). "Park Closed After Cougar Stalks Visitors," September 8, 1993, p. A12.
Perry, Tony. "State Park Closed After Cougar Menaces Bikers," Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1994, pp. A3, A16.
Seidensticker, John, with Susan Lumpkin. "Mountain Lions Don't Stalk People. True or False?" Smithsonian, February 1992, pp. 113-122.
Letter (undated, but after September 2, 1993) from Department of Fish and Game to staff of Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee summarizing selected information about mountain lions in California.
Letters received by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, September 1993, commenting on the Cuyamaca incident.
List of mountain lion attacks, provided by Kevin Hansen, Mountain Lion Foundation.
Mountain lion plan and cover memo, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, February 14, 1992. To be used as one source for California's policy on mountain lions in state parks, according to E. Carl Drake, of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Note: Senate Resolution 29 (Presley), requests information on mountain lion sightings, incidents, population, and related issues to be provided to specified Senate and Assembly committees by the Department of Fish and Game not later than April 1, 1994. In view of this pending request, the Bureau researcher assigned to this topic considered it inadvisable to press the department for an earlier compilation of the same information in response to this inquiry.
Dillingham, Tim, Wildlife Biologist, California Department of Fish and Game (telephone).
Drake, E. Carl, Aquatic and Public Safety Supervisor, California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Hansen, Kevin, Science Director, Mountain Lion Foundation.
Torres, Steve, Wildlife Biologist, California Department of Fish and Game.
Barnes, B. (2006). Assorted Photographs from San Diego County, 2005. WhiteSageCafe@AO.com