Lion Stories

Man vs. nature in one of Humboldt's rural communities



When she closes her eyes, Marianne Way can sometimes still picture the teeth. It was around three in the afternoon in October 2008, and Way was taking advantage of a break in the rain to replace a lightbulb at the edge of her Fieldbrook driveway. The fixture stuck out of the ground in a small landscaped thicket just a few feet from the garage. Her year-old Manx cat Flash padded along behind her.

She was about to bend over to grab the light, when she saw movement in the bushes in front of her. A mountain lion — "150 pounds at least," she says — darted out of the shadows past her, snatched her kitty and disappeared past the garage into her property's woods.

"I was really traumatized," she says. "For three weeks I did not go outside."

When her nerves returned, Way went to the edge of the rolling lawns in her backyard to trim some bushes. All of a sudden, her eyes focused on a shape past a stump in the woods. Just a few feet away was the lion, watching her. "When I looked up there was only a mesh netting between me and the mountain lion," she says. "I kind of walked backward towards the grass. When I was far enough away, I started to run."

From the window of her house, Way says she watched the lion for some time before it sauntered away into the forest. "I could've got a gun and shot him through the window because he didn't move."

Encounters between mountain lions and humans or their pets are very uncommon, but they are a reality in rural areas like Fieldbrook. That tiny community is a microcosm of Humboldt County's various philosophies on humans and nature, a perfect example of how societies react to nature's encroachments — or humans' encroachments, depending on your view.

Mountain lions hold a special place in the human mind, whether they're regarded with fear, reverence or calculated reality. As a new study of North Coast mountain lions gets off the ground, residents debate what they can do to protect themselves, their pets, their livestock — and their livelihoods.

Ways' encounter with the lion was years ago, but recent sightings kicked up a flurry of rumors and debate in Fieldbrook earlier this month. On June 3, residents began posting about lions on both of Fieldbrook's community Facebook pages.

"Mountain Lion has been spotted a few times near Wilson Lane," wrote CindyLou Chapman-LeGrand. "Many Fieldbrook cats are missing. Keep your pets inside, food inside, and be vigilant! It will move on!"

For several weeks before and after the sightings, people posted about missing cats that they feared had turned into mountain lion meals. The sightings prompted Fieldbrook School to tell its students not to play along the wooded south and west school fence lines. Both Facebook groups work as sounding boards for a connected and tight-knit community. The groups are forums for all kinds of activity, from aggressive dogs to decorating for the eighth grade graduation. Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg's often on there giving people updates on power outages or answering other community questions.

The pages tend to keep a clear focus on pets, livestock and wildlife, so there's no surprise a mountain lion sighting would end up there.

But the Facebook pages also highlight the misconceptions that surround America's most notorious predator and a deep divide over the community's philosophies of how to deal with them.

Mountain lions are elusive, solitary hunters, which likely adds to their mystique. "They're really one of the most far-ranging carnivores," says Humboldt State University Wildlife Department Chair Micaela Gunther. "They're up in the mountains with snow and they're down in the deserts of Arizona. They're amazing with the areas that they can cover and adapt to."

Despite that, Gunther says, "Over their range they don't have a really large interaction with people."

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare yet well publicized. North Coast residents will no doubt recall the 2007 attack on a Fortuna man in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It is Humboldt County's only recorded attack and the man survived after his wife was able to fend off the lion. Since 1986, only 14 verified attacks on humans have occurred in California. Three of those were fatal.

"Those numbers are so, so small," Gunther says. "You're more likely to die from being stung by a bee or struck by lightning."

Gunther says attacks in human-inhabited areas are most often carried out by young, inexperienced lions or desperate, sick or malnourished ones.

Even seeing lions is rare, says California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan. "Most reports are cats, coyotes or dogs," he says.

For the most part, Gunther suspects, lions avoid areas where humans live and travel. "I don't think they do like hanging around people. I think they are shy by nature."

But little is known about lion habits on the North Coast. Gunther, who specializes in carnivore behavior, recently began a pilot study in Redwood National and State Parks with Jared Duquette, a research ecologist with the Arcata-based Institute for Wildlife Studies.

"We don't really know much, at least from a scientific standpoint, how mountain lions are actually using the park at any given time," Duquette says, which prompted the two to design a study that will use cameras to record mountain lion activity near trails in the parks. A master's student in 2004 monitored nine lions with radio collars. "She was able to describe their general habitat associations and how they avoided roads," Duquette says. "But we don't have any idea how mountain lions are using trails."

If they're successful with the pilot study, expanded research could give insight into the density of lion populations and the potential for future conflicts with hikers in the redwoods.

Despite the unknowns, or maybe because of them, misconceptions are rampant.

"I think it's become a mythical type fear or misunderstanding," Gunther says. "And maybe a frustration about not being able to protect yourself."

People can protect themselves from mountain lions, though the predators have protections of their own. The mountain lion's listing as a "specially protected" species came as the result of a 1990 state ballot measure that, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw emotional reactions on both sides of the issue. But that battle didn't come about to save a species — even the bill's proponents admitted at the time that lions, which were a game mammal in the state, were not threatened by hunting.

The protection came about more as a real estate measure than a biological one, according to a 1990 Los Angeles Times article. "Corridors of natural habitat must be preserved to maintain the genetic integrity of California's wildlife," the initiative read, and the Times wrote that it "would create the Habitat Conservation Fund to spend $30 million a year for 30 years to buy and reserve wildlife habitat."

Some environmentalists opposed the measure because they felt the money could be better spent on species facing larger threats than the mountain lion, but the measure passed with 52 percent of the vote. An attempt in 1997 to repeal the protections was defeated.

So the mountain lion remains "specially protected," meaning it cannot be hunted and can only be killed under certain circumstances. Illegally killing a mountain lion (or injuring, possessing, transporting, importing or selling one) can get you a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Hughan, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, explains the scenarios in which a lion can legally be killed.

The first, and most common, comes after a mountain lion kills livestock. The animals' owners (pets are excluded, it must be saleable livestock) must report the attack to Fish and Wildlife, which sends a game warden to verify that the attack was carried out by a lion and not, say, loose dogs. If there's enough evidence that a mountain lion killed the animal, the warden can issue a depredation permit — a onetime license to kill the specific lion that killed the rancher's animal. It expires 10 days after it's issued. "Obviously you won't know which lion it is," Hughan says. But "they're very spread out and very territorial." A lion that comes back within a short period is likely the same one that killed the livestock.

You can also kill a mountain lion if it poses an imminent danger — "If you are out feeding your chickens and a lion jumps on your fence and you feel threatened," Hughan suggests. An incident like that has to be reported to Fish and Wildlife immediately, and a warden will investigate the claim. Still, Hughan says, spontaneous killings almost never happen, and he can't think of a case where one occurred in Humboldt County.

Since 1972, 333 depredation permits were issued for mountain lions locally with 172 lions taken during that period.

Killing a lion can be problematic, says Gunther.

"If there's a carnivore coming back and taking goats, they might be a real threat for communities," she says. Those are often the sick, young or desperate lions — "fringe" lions. "Taking out a lion like that with a depredation permit may not have a terrible impact."

But because lions are so territorial and cover a lot of ground, taking a dominant male out of the population could open up a space for another, more risky fringe lion. Experienced adult lions, the common thought is, are less likely to interact with humans or even approach areas where people live, travel or recreate. "Whether that's happening here or not I'm not really certain," she says. And that's part of the point of her study. "That has to be in a pretty saturated environment," she says. "I don't want people to falsely believe that means lions are trying to break in from everywhere."

Fieldbrook's conversations on how to deal with lions range wildly.

When the Facebook groups began reporting sightings, Marianne Way joined in to tell about her encounter and suggest that Fish and Wildlife be contacted. Others disagreed, including CindyLou Chapman-LeGrand, who wrote, "Please realize if you call Animal Control or Fish and Game, they will HUNT the cougar, not 'relocate' him. It's a death sentence for the cat. ... I hate to see it hunted down and die a horrific terrifying death because we pulled the panic trigger too soon."

Way responded, saying if she had another encounter, "I shoot him in a heartbeat, because it could of been me, it was not a pretty sight."

"Why the hate?" LeGrand responded. "I have dealt with Mt Lion in the past, and had to call [and] have it killed when it displayed abnormal and threatening behavior. NO, I'm not saying it should eat critters or kids, get a grip! I am saying not to panic, do the smart thing and keep your pets and kids close and indoors during risky hours, and be vigilant (not stupid!)."

Way talks about the dispute as she walks through her yard one sunny Friday. While her husband chases deer out of her fenced vegetable garden, Way points out where she encountered the lion years ago. She suspects many lion-loving Fieldbrook residents are recent transplants from more urban areas, like Oakland and L.A., who came to commune with nature without a real understanding of what that entails. She says people are too soft on lions, particularly when there are children, pets and livestock in danger — though she says she certainly isn't anti-wildlife: "I like animals just like anyone else."

The Fieldbrook Family Market, renovated and reopened about two months ago, is inarguably Fieldbrook's non-virtual social hub. It's also a display of the disparate yet cohesive elements that make Fieldbrook unique.

The airy market is busy around lunchtime, with the lot full of cars and people making grocery runs. The rustic and country-style market advertises kombucha and gluten free products, while the inside of the building is filled with the unmistakable smell of barbecue and bacon. Mike Smith — that day's cashier — hasn't heard any rumors about mountain lion sightings, but the inquiry sends him on an Internet fact-finding mission. How much does a mountain lion weigh? What is its range?

Bridget Winkler interrupts Smith's Googling to buy some ginger ale for sick family members at home. She talks about the lion with familiarity — as though it's a member of the community. "He hasn't really been doing much lately," she says. Though, she adds, some kids recently found a lion tooth in a stump near the schoolyard.

On the following Thursday, around quitting time, it's hard to find an empty barstool at the market. Between bites of bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, Rob "The Zombie" Coffman (he got the nickname when he worked the graveyard shift at the post office) says there's plenty of wildlife and other hazards that can take out housecats. "It's gonna be hard to attribute cats disappearing to mountain lions," he says. But that doesn't mean lions aren't around. In fact, he says, he lost a goat to a mountain lion just a couple weeks ago. "We didn't actually see the mountain lion take it," he says. "It went missing."

But he knows it was a lion because it left no trace of the year-and-a-half-old goat, one of three he lets roam his 2-acre property to keep grass down. "Nothing [else] could pick it up over the fence without taking the fence down," he says. "The goat was completely gone." Plus, the rest of the goats have been pretty nervous since. "They kinda let you know something was wrong," he says, adding that they still avoid the corner where there was a musky mountain lion smell after his goat disappeared.

Coffman's son Cody, sitting just a barstool over, chimes in, saying he regularly hears mountain lions at night. "Sometimes it sounds like a woman screaming," he says.

That prompts Cody's friend to relay his only mountain lion sighting, about three years ago on Grassy Creek Lane. It was only a glimpse, but after initally thinking it was a dog, there was no mistaking the low slink of its movements and that tail. A resident pulled up to check his mail right where the cat had disappeared into the bushes moments before and Cody's friend hollered at him to stop. The man thanked him and said "I'll check my mail in the morning."

Rob Coffman has a laissez-faire philosophy on wildlife, including mountain lions. He and his wife take precautions to lock up garbage and prevent attracting animals. Bears, he says, are more of a problem. They push over fences and get in the way. "I'm not one that panics over the wildlife. I wouldn't want to meet a mountain lion face to face," he says. "Living out here — that's just part of it."

He's matter of fact about losing the goat, saying with a wink that the animals are the "best lawnmowers he's ever had." His wife gets attached though, which is why they stopped adopting old rescue goats and getting young ones.

"We were concerned that [the lion] might come back," he says, but adds that it may have selected the goat because it had begun to fall ill. The rest of the goats have been untouched in the subsequent weeks.

Gunther, HSU's wildlife department chair, understands the tricky balance that must be kept between wildlife and humans. She's in favor of the protections mountain lions are allowed. "From my perspective as a wildlife biologist, I think that's fair," she says. "We have encroached on their space. Even on private properties they have the right to wander."

Still, she says, a desire to protect livestock, pets and people is reasonable. "I don't want to be this irrational biologist saying, 'If it means sacrificing a goat, sorry for you, suck it up.'"

Fieldbrook resident Joan Crandell calls herself a "bleeding heart moderate" when it comes to mountain lions. She and her family raise goats, chickens, cows and calves — almost strictly for personal use, though they sell some surplus to friends — so she understands the risks that mountain lions pose to livestock. But her animals are not her livelihood (she's a teacher). "I can afford to have a different perspective," she says.

"I chose to live here so I'm not going to be a NIMBY," she continues. "We create the problem. The animals either hurt somebody or livestock and, rightly so, they have to be terminated or taken out. If you remove those attractions that bring them in you can start to limit the contact you're going to have with them. If they're afraid of humans, hopefully they're not a problem for ranchers."

Crandell is more often concerned with packs of feral or wild neighborhood dogs that kill livestock and pets. But she does anticipate more mountain lions and bears than normal this year as drought forces them farther into inhabited areas in search of water.

While Fish and Wildlife suggest that mountain lion danger is no different in a drought year, Gunther says the animals are atracted to human areas for food, shelter and water.

"It's not clear that this would be worse during a drought year, especially in a water-plentiful area (relatively speaking) like Humboldt County," she says.

Humboldt County is made up of people who differ on humankind's responsibilities when it comes to interacting with and living among wildlife. The debate is at the heart of the controversy over how to develop the county; with a growing population, do we build up or out? Do we conquer or acquiesce to nature? Is there an in-between? Nowhere is the question more relevant than in Fieldbrook, where the fact that such a question can be asked is part of the beauty of living there, says Rob Coffman.

"Everybody has a different viewpoint. And everyone's allowed to have a different viewpoint."

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