SAN MATEO -- Responding to last month's controversial killing by game wardens of two 4-month-old cougar cubs, state Sen. Jerry Hill on Friday will introduce legislation to reform how the California Department of Fish and Wildlife handles encounters between humans and mountain lions.
The bill would require the agency to use nonlethal methods when dealing with cougars unless there is a dire public safety threat. It would also authorize the department to work with wildlife groups and other organizations in capturing the animals. Critics say the agency has tied its own hands with guidelines that allow practically any wayward lion to be dispatched.
Hill, D-San Mateo, worked closely in drafting the legislation with the Mountain Lion Foundation, the nonprofit behind the 1990 ban on mountain lion hunting in California. Tim Dunbar, the foundation's executive director, said the legislation, if passed, will be groundbreaking.
"This will make a major difference in how our society interacts with lions in California," said Dunbar, noting that human development will inevitably lead to more brushes with the state's apex predator. "We can't just have it that any mountain lion that comes into a human community is killed."
The Department of Fish and Wildlife created a public uproar Dec. 1 when game wardens shot and killed two cubs, believed to be orphaned siblings, under the porch of a home in Half Moon Bay. Officials claimed it would have been too dangerous for wardens to attempt to trap or tranquilize the animals, which they described as 9-month-old "subadults" that weighed between 25 and 30 pounds.
But a necropsy revealed the cubs were much younger and weighed 13 and 14 pounds, about the mass of a well-fed house cat. Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham said in announcing the necropsy results Dec. 21 that he regretted the shooting.
The proposed law would give wardens the flexibility to use nonlethal alternatives on mountain lions -- including capturing and then rehabilitating them for release -- unless the animals "can reasonably be expected to cause immediate death or physical harm."
"It seemed wrong to kill baby or cub mountain lions when they weren't threatening human life," Hill said regarding his impetus for shepherding the bill. "We wanted to find available tools and options to prevent that type of action in the future."
Hill has discussed his bill with Fish and Wildlife and said the agency was not convinced of the need for legislation. The department is already in the process of revising its public safety guidelines. A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said Thursday the department did not have a response to the bill yet.
Meanwhile, a Bay Area wildlife rescuer has organized a committee to come up with standards for the rehabilitation and release of lions. Rebecca Dmytryk, who runs Wildlife Emergency Services, said the five-person team includes a representative from White Oak Plantation, a Florida facility that has successfully discharged endangered panthers back into the wild.
The committee's goal is for Fish and Wildlife to adopt its recommendations, though the agency has expressed skepticism about the feasibility of rehabilitating and freeing cougars. Dmytryk said she also aims to establish a facility specializing in treating injured lions for emancipation.
"I think if we build it," she said, "they will come eventually."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes. ___