In 1990 cougars were legally classified as a “specially protected species” by the passage of a voter initiative (Proposition 117). Prior to that initiative, from 1986-1990, cougars were classified as “game mammals,” although no hunting season was conducted during that time. Trophy-hunting proponents placed Proposition 197 on the 1996 ballot in an effort to overturn the ban on cougar hunting. It failed as have several subsequent legislative attempts supported by the hunting community.
Although over 71,000 square miles (46 percent) of the state are considered suitable mountain lion habitat, the pressure to develop and thus fragment large tracts of habitat continues to erode the quality of existing habitat. And as more humans move into these areas and the frequency of cougar-human encounters grows, pubic attitudes towards cougars are subject to change depending on how local news organizations portray this wide-ranging, secretive carnivore.
Although cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare, they do occur. From 1890 to July, 2012, California reported 6 fatal attacks on humans by cougars and 11 non-fatal attacks (2 of the fatalities, which occurred in 1909, were diagnosed as due to rabies). All of the non-fatal attacks and three of the fatalities occurred since 1986. Hunting interests have advocated that sport hunting can reduce the risk of cougars attacking humans. There is no scientific evidence that sport hunting achieves this goal (Rather, there is a body of evidence that suggests sport hunting of cougars can actually increase conflicts with humans and livestock).
Cougars may be legally killed if a depredation permit is issued after a sight visit by a California Department of Fish and Game officer or biologist determines that a cougar was responsible for the death or injury of a pet or livestock. Depredation permits expire after 10 days. If a cougar is found in the act of attacking a pet or livestock or is determined to be of immediate threat to human life (Public Safety), it may be killed by a resident without liability as long as the Department of Fish and Game is immediately notified and the circumstances verified.
Game and Fish Department records from 1990 (Passage of Proposition 117) to 2009 indicate that 2,033 cougars were killed in Depredation Actions, averaging 101.7 per year. From 1995, the first year data is available, a total of 124 cougars were killed in Public Safety actions (8.3 per year).
Officials state that a public informed in ways to protect their pets and livestock and on ways to live, work, and recreate in cougar country remains the most effective solution to combating cougar encounters.
Historically, a very small population of cougars referred to as Yuma mountain lions inhabited the bottomlands and adjacent uplands of the Colorado River in southeastern California (and southwestern Arizona). They were considered a distinct sub-species and were listed as a “Species of Special Concern” by the California Department of Game and Fish in 1986. That listing included the following management recommendation: “Mountain lions in the California desert area should continue to be completely protected. Any individuals preying on livestock should be captured alive, if possible, and relocated, rather than killed.”
Although a 1995 scientific publication based on a literature review and morphometric analysis of museum specimens concluded that: “… subspecific status is probably not warranted,” the designation of the Yuma mountain lion as a “Species of Special Concern” along with its management recommendations appears to remain in place and valid based upon its qualification as a California “Distinct Population”, if not a subspecies.
More recently, concerns have grown over the fate of cougars in southern California’s Santa Monica mountains and the surrounding region. The lack of connectivity and genetic diversity is well-documented, and many groups are working to raise awareness and support for various conservation projects, including habitat protection and wildlife crossings.
There is no sport-hunting season for cougars in the state of California.
In 2014, 62 cougars were killed under depredation permits.