Young mountain lion shot dead in Napa area after preying on two sheep

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A young mountain lion trapped last week and fitted with an electronic collar as part of an Audubon Canyon Ranch research project was shot dead Saturday outside a Napa-area home, where it already had preyed on two sheep on successive nights and was trying to snag a third when it was killed by a resident.

The incident set off a round of angry criticism aimed at residents of the Redwood Road home for choosing to kill the wild cat rather than better secure their livestock — a central tenet of the nonprofit conservation organization’s Living with Lions program.

It’s proved painful, too, for the Napa family now feeling the need to defend actions driven by concern for the safety of three young children and their small family herd amid a slew of hateful social media comments — not to mention gawkers parked on their rural lane recording video and, in one case, calling out hostile remarks.

With a cougar pilfering sheep three nights running about 20 feet from their front door, it seemed the only solution, said Alejandra Calderon, whose husband, a hunter, took the fatal shot.

“As a parent, I hope that they understand how scared we were in the moment,” she said. “It was a scary experience.”

It’s the third time in the 2 1/2-year history of the Living with Lions program that one of the study cats has been killed after preying on domestic livestock, with each occasion giving rise to increasingly intense public reaction, given growing awareness and popularity of the program, particularly in Sonoma County.

In each case, those killed were young lions still learning to hunt and believed to be only recently dispersing from their mothers. Forced to fend for themselves, they preyed opportunistically on animals improperly secured for mountain lion territory, said Quinton Martins, a South African biologist and big cat expert who runs the program.

Martins and other conservationists say the onus is on those who own domestic animals to keep them properly enclosed and secured, especially between dusk and dawn, when mountain lions do most of their hunting, given the importance of preserving dwindling numbers of cougars, the apex predator in the region, and maintaining ecological balance of some kind.

“There isn’t anybody who can give me a single good reason about how the killing of that cat does anything good,” Martins said.

State Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Lt. Jim Jones said two officers have investigated the incident and verified that the sheep were killed and that the family had reached out several times to the agency. He said the family didn’t know to ask for a permit to kill the animal, but also did not need to have one if the livestock is in imminent danger.

Martins, who studied leopards in his home country, has since 2016 been working to understand the dominant animal species in much of California, mapping individual lion’s territories and travels in the Sonoma Valley, identifying key habitats and migration corridors and promoting conservation.

He recently was permitted to expand the study into much of Mendocino and Lake counties. The study area also extends into Napa County.

The newest lion, known as P15, is the 15th to be collared during the program’s run and first came to Martins’ attention on Feb. 4 in what was, even then, a stay of execution.

Believed to be about 13 months old, it had trespassed on ridge top property between Dry Creek and Redwoods roads in Napa where Patricia Damery found a beloved goat dead the next morning. It was Dasher, a goat she had helped birth 9 years earlier. And she feared the beast that had killed it, she said.

“I’ve got grandchildren — 6- and 8-year-old grandsons,” said Damery, 70. “I walk the trails every day. I was afraid.”

Her five surviving goats and a guard llama were traumatized, shaking and staring at the fence line. She tried to call California Fish and Wildlife, and called her veterinarian and the sheriff, and US Department of Agriculture trapper was sent out to capture the animal.

But somewhere along the way, at a friend’s urging, she called Martins, a man she’s never heard of, and he convinced her to try something different. Martins was soon at the house, setting up a different trap, that later that night registered a visitor who was tranquilized, examined, tattooed and collared with a transmitter that would allow him to be tracked.

Damery said she was taken by the respect and gentleness with which he was treated, and the entire experience was “transformative.”

“Honestly, it changed my feeling about the whole process,” she said. “He did what lions do. He killed game, and it was my fault for having that goat out, but also he was such a beautiful lion. ... It was about being in the beauty of nature there.”

P15, named Jupiter by Damery, was believed to be the offspring of a female recently recaptured and outfitted with a new collar battery just up the road from where P15 was killed.

Audubon Canyon Ranch had barely announced the new addition to its lineup of collared lions when it was informed the animal, known as P15, had been killed, though the circumstances were confusing.

Though hunting of mountain lions has been banned in California since 1990, landowners have the right to seek depredation permits to kill them for damage to property, pets or livestock. The state also can eliminate lions deemed a public safety threat.

Martins said he initially was informed that state Fish and Wildlife officials had issued a depredation permit for the Redwood Road mountain lion, but it turns out that one had not been sought, because the homeowner and renters were unfamiliar with them.

Calderon said she and her husband both had seen mountain lions near their home but never imagined one coming into the neighborhood, let alone onto the 6-acre property they have rented for eight years. She said the sheep, first acquired to keep the grasses on their six acres shorn, stayed mostly surrounded by a short, movable electric fence.

But she woke up Thursday morning and saw an animal out the window surrounded by vultures and discovered it was Pancake, a pregnant sheep her son had named. The next morning, it was a ram, killed, but not eaten.

Each was a terrible shock, and she called state Fish and Wildlife officials hoping someone would come out and provide some kind of advice, but no one did.

And she and her husband had heard nothing on either night, the lion was so quiet. So Friday night, he decided they would stay up and watch, and around 1:30 a.m. the cat appeared, right in front of their living room window, trying to corner a sheep in the pen. It pounced unsuccessfully, and Calderon and her husband crept into their daughter’s bedroom, opened the window, and her husband aimed his gun.

Calderon said there is no joy or pride in what happened. She said she did not touch the mountain lion afterward as she waited for Fish and Wildlife to come out. She said she and her family are animal lovers.

“Of course, I totally understand people being upset, whoever was tracking these animals. But that was not our intention to just do it for the heck,” she said. “We would never do anything like that. We did it for safety.”

For more information see Living with Mountain Lions see egret.org/living-with-lions. If you see a fresh mountain lion kill, you can call Quinton Matins at 707-721-6560.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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