TROPHY TAKING. Hunting California's mountain lion: the opposition regroups

The fur is still flying over a plan to allow the hunting of mountain lions in California for the first time in 15 years. Last month, after more than a year of often emotional debate, the California Fish and Game Commission approved a limited sport hunting season for the big cats in northern and central California. It gave the go-ahead for the issuance of 190 licenses for a 79-day hunting season beginning in October.

The decision cheered hunting advocates but riled wildlife and environmental groups, which had lobbied intensely against the lifting of the ban, the only one of its kind in the western United States.

Now opponents of the decision are mobilizing behind several bills in the Legislature that seek to limit or stop the hunt. At the same time, they are planning to file suit within two weeks against the state Fish and Game Commission.

``The campaign is far from dead,'' says Nicole Silk, a lobbyist with the Mountain Lion Coalition in Sacramento. ``It's just shifting gears.''

The moves extend what has been one of the state's most visible and, at times, vitriolic wildlife disputes and a classic confrontation between hunters and nonhunters.

The commission's decision ended a moratorium on mountain lion hunting imposed by the Legislature in 1971. Although the ban officially expired last year, it was continued while the commission studied the lion population.

The mountain lion is found throughout the West and in isolated parts of the East, including Florida, where a moratorium is in effect to protect the species.

Although the animal is not an endangered species here, its population is the source of some dispute, which underlies part of the current debate. The Fish and Game Department puts the lion population at a minimum of 5,100. It argues the numbers are healthy enough that killing fewer than 190 cats - about 25 percent of the hunters are projected to bag one - will not undermine the animal's survivability.

Buttressing these arguments have been contentions that the lions are a danger to deer herds and that they are preying on livestock. And two children were mauled by lions in Orange County last year.

``The mountain lion is not an endangered species,'' says Kent DeChambeau of the California Rifle and Pistol Association. ``The issue is trophy hunting. I don't think that kind of carrying out of our American heritage is wrong.''

Opponents, for their part, argue that the population of the cats may well be below the state's estimate. At the least, they contend the numbers are uncertain, since the lions, which are elusive and roam a broad territory, have not been studied enough.

They also argue that lions are responsible for a small percentage of the livestock that is killed, and that special permits exist to take out cats that attack farm animals. Perhaps their overriding argument, however, is ethical: that lions should not be shot for sport.

``It is no longer acceptable to go out and kill an animal just because it exists,'' says Sharon Negri of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation.

In its ruling, the commission excluded southern California from the hunt. It said sufficient studies had not been done in the area, though it is also where much opposition has been generated. Eight cities and counties have passed lion hunting bans.

Opponents of the shoot are now banking on the Legislature. One bill would put the lion on a protected list, while another would ban dogs from being used in the hunt, which would reduce the number of trophies taken. A third seeks to ``diversify'' the content of the five-member commission, which wildlife defenders claim is pro-hunting.

Opponents concede they face an uphill battle. And even if they do win, they may have to convince Gov. George Deukmejian: He vetoed a bill last year that would have extended the lion moratorium.

Meanwhile, some groups are leaving nothing to chance. They are urging people to apply for permits to hunt the lions. Since the licenses will be issued by lottery, they hope to flood the drawing and then not use the permits.

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