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To Skin a Cat

stuffed cat
Christopher Gardner

Downed and Out: There's more than one way to kill a mountain lion, yet sports hunter Geoff says that whether it's downed by warden or hunter, the lion ends up dead.

Supporters aren't saying it, but two words sum up Proposition 197: sport hunting

By Ami Chen Mills

"It's not politically correct nowadays to be a hunter," sighs Geoff, a Bay Area hunter and taxidermist who prefers not to disclose his last name. In 1994, animal-rights crank callers threatened to blow up his house and studio.

Geoff hunts all kinds of critters, including felis concolor concolor, the mountain lion--also known as the puma, panther or cougar. He's got a cougar hunt planned next month in New Mexico and a somewhat dusty mounted lion on display in his studio. He's even eaten mountain lion meat. "It tastes fine," he says, "tastes like pork."

But enthusiasts like Geoff hunt more for fun than the taste of cougar--much to the horror of anti-hunting activists. Passion on both sides of the issue has placed sport hunting of lions on the California ballot for the second time this decade. Proposition 197 supporters, however, would keep big game hunters camouflaged during the debate over California mountain lion management.

Over the past century, California cougars have graduated from bountied "varmint" status to game animal status and, in 1972, were granted "specially protected status" in response to outcry over trophy hunting. Since '72, hunting lobbies, working with the Department of Fish and Game, have proposed legislation to open hunting season on lions. These efforts were blocked by conservationists. In turn, conservationists have proposed, also with Fish and Game, legislation to begin management of lions without hunting. These efforts were blocked by hunters.

In 1990, mountain lion sport hunting was banned--ostensibly for good--by Proposition 117. The recent spate of sightings and attacks, however, opened the door for 197.

Proposition 197 purports to restore common sense to California's mountain lion management policy. Most wildlife biologists agree that money is needed for research into the still mysterious lion population, and California Department of Fish and Game officials consider recent attacks on humans more than just inevitable mishaps. "There's been a profound and dramatic increase in lion conflicts and activity," says state lion coordinator Steve Torres.

Evidence suggests that cougars are behaving oddly. In Yosemite National Park in 1994, a mountain lion dragged a dead coyote through crowded Curry Village cabins, and one puma chose as its stalking ground an occupied campsite. Shots from a paint-ball gun were not enough to get the lion off its haunches. Finally, rubber bullets managed to irritate the cat, which wandered off--only to return later.

In his 16 years as a park biologist, Leslie Chow claims it wasn't until 1994 when "I saw my first mountain lion, ever. In 1995, I saw my second mountain lion--walking within 100 feet of Yosemite Lodge." Park visitors have reported hundreds of sightings in the last two years.

The Lion's Share

Why are big cats behaving this way? Statewide, Chow says, "no one seems to know if the mountain lion population has grown. The Department of Fish and Game thinks it's grown. But I can't think of any reliable, systematic studies."

In response to erratic activity, Chow and others are preparing a puma study financed by the private Yosemite Fund. Public funds, Chow says, have not been available for expensive research.

Like other biologists, Chow would like to see some of the $30 million a year earmarked for habitat conservation in 1990 by Proposition 117, a citizen-sponsored, anti-hunting initiative, used for lion research. After 117 took a lion's share of habitat and endangered species funding, Chow claims, Fish and Game "didn't have much money left to do studies. As a wildlife biologist, I would prefer to have management of wildlife in the hands of professionals, rather than in the hands of the voters."

Proposition 197 would considerably free the hands of Fish and Game to research lion populations and enact management programs. To these ends, 197 would allocate $250,000 a year for lion research for three years and $100,000 a year thereafter. Although groups like the Sierra Club and the Humane Society debate the need for extensive lion management, and charge that Fish and Game "sat on its hands" complaining of imaginary restrictions, No on 197 campaigners are mostly in agreement on the need for research money and management for California cougars.

In February, the No on 197 campaign, led by the California Wildlife Protection Coalition offered its own version of 197: Senate Bill 1487, which borrows the text of 197, but with 12 added words: "Nothing in law legalizes the sport or trophy hunting of mountain lions."

If 197 does not pass on Tuesday, it is unlikely--because of its hunting ban--that SB 1487 would make it through the Republican-controlled legislature and to the November ballot. Nonetheless, SB 1487 cuts a clear distinction between the two proposals, and between the warring camps, which can be summed in two words: sport hunting.

Both sides agree on eradicating cats that prowl on livestock, a practice called depredation, and eradicating pumas that pose a threat to human safety. But sport hunting is the singular sticking point which has waylaid the efforts of both management officials and conservation activists.

Mountain lions are not currently endangered. According to biologists and Fish and Game officials, the effect of hunting from a management, revenue and ecological standpoint is negligible. Hunting alone will not decrease population significantly, nor has it decreased incidents of depredation or human attacks in states where hunting is allowed.

Is 197, then, a morality question?

"Yes. That's exactly what it is. Our clear intent is to excise trophy hunting," says Don Fields of the No on 197 campaign. The Yes on 197 campaign, fronted by Californians for Balanced Wildlife Management, admits that hunting is the one difference between Prop. 197 and the Senate Bill. Still, the Yes on 197 campaign dodges hunting debates. "I can't comment on that," says 197 campaign manager Joe Giariello. "The idea of hunting just doesn't interest me."

Roger Wildermuth, spokesman for Sen. Tim Leslie, sponsor of 197, says the measure will put both management and hunting issues back in the hands of Fish and Game. Voters who chose to do otherwise in 1990 were deceived. "Polls showed that in 1990, voters believed the cougars were endangered. Cougars are not threatened or endangered, nor have they ever been," he maintains.

Nonetheless, counters Bill Yeates, president of the Mountain Lion Foundation, the cat's out of the bag--197 is about sport hunting and voters know it. Confident that voters will oppose trophy hunting again, the No campaign has placed it in the limelight. A commercial released March 19 depicts a lion hunt which employs hounds. The cougar is treed by dogs and then shot by hunters. The cat drops from the tree, but rises and makes a desperate break across a river when a second shot rings out and the cougar falls, dead in the water.

stuffed cat
Christopher Gardner

Lion's Head: Geoff prefers his lions to sport a look of repose. "I don't like the growling expression," he says. "It's not typical and it's not attractive."

The Lonely Hunter

"That's a worse-case scenario," says hunter Geoff. "I'm not going to tell you it's not going to happen. But it's very rare. The last thing you want to do is wound a dangerous animal."

For hunters, the 197 campaign is a watershed opportunity to reverse a nationwide anti-hunting tide. The proposition is heavily supported by various gun and hunting organizations, including Safari Club International, the Outdoor Sportsmen Coalition and the National Rifle Association. Still, without an open discussion of sport hunting, the 197 campaign as waged is hardly stumping for the rights of the California hunter.

But Geoff would like to. "It's only been in the last few hundred years that people stopped hunting food quite regularly," he observes. Hunters today, Geoff protests, are misunderstood. "Most people think hunters are overweight, illiterate, beer-guzzling rednecks who shoot at anything that steps out in front of them." But one look at Geoff upsets expectations. He's a somewhat slight, gentle-looking, mustachioed man who wears Birkenstocks around the house and is devoted to his two dogs and pet cockatoo.

The front foyer of his tract home is a taxidermist's display case of mounted animals. The walls are painted in earth tones to represent a wilderness backdrop, and against this backdrop are set the huge busts of moose and elk, along with wild boar, warthog, gray fox, mule deer, badger, baboon and even iguana and lizard trophies.

On a raised platform, looking slightly devilish but not mean ("the snarling pose is actually kind of antiquated," Geoff says), is a surprisingly small Nevada mountain lion, bagged before the 1990 ban on mountain lion import. Today, lion skins, skulls and trophies cannot be brought into California and taxidermists like Geoff are barred from work on lion trophies. This lion, he says, is not particularly small, it's just that most people see their wild animals on TV--"They look a lot bigger that way." One of Geoff's peeves, in fact, is that those who oppose hunting have little experience with the sport.

"Urban people don't understand. If people are not vegetarian and they're anti-hunting, all they're doing is paying someone else to do their killing for them." Urban sprawl, he says, contributes more to the decline of wildlife than hunting.

Geoff is the all-around model hunter, a member of the Safari Club, Ducks Unlimited, the NRA, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Mule Deer Foundation, among others. He volunteers for the nonprofit group Environmental Traveling Companions where, Geoff says, he's become pals with "a lot of potential eco-terrorist types." He subscribes to all the hunting and fishing magazines, and his freezer is stocked with game meat and fish. His single mother took him on his first hunting and fishing trips.

In the hunting magazines Geoff passes along, hunters champion the joy of the outdoors and receive updates on conservation efforts. Like Sierra Club members, they decry the sprawl of agribusiness, which both encroaches on wildlife territory and poisons fish and fowl. Unlike Sierra Club members, Geoff says, hunters don't rely as heavily on agribusiness for food.

According to the mags' glossy, camo-bordered pages, hunting is about more than the kill. A skilled hunter must know wilderness territory and wildlife habits, find camouflage and stalk game. "When I go hunting, I'm a participant. If I go out into the woods and just go for a hike, I'm an observer. I'd much rather be a participant," Geoff says.

The hunters' credo appears to be that humans are still very much a part of the food chain, existing both to hunt, and to be hunted. One lengthy article in North American Hunter details the slaughter of two elk hunters in British Columbia by a hungry grizzly. For hunters who spend days in the wilderness, predators are a physical threat. And they compete for edible game.

In the 197 melee, cougars are accused of preying on innocent joggers and peaceful bird watchers. Hunters are confused. Why does no one want them to shoot pumas? After all, hunters take out all kinds of noncarnivorous animals. Why not animals that pose a threat to man?

"Mountain lions will be shot one way or another," Geoff says, "And this ban will just make urban dwellers feel better when it's done." Game wardens, like hunters, use hounds to track and tree cougars. "Treeing and shooting is probably one of the more humane things that could be done. The animal is still, so you have the opportunity to get a good, clean shot," says Jeannine DeWald, a biologist for Fish and Game.

In fact, the tracking and shooting of problem cats proceeds at a steady pace. In 1994, 122 mountain lions were killed, which partially refutes the argument hunters make that reinstituting lion hunting in California will re-instill a fear of humans in an overly relaxed cougar population. If lions are hunted now, why aren't they more afraid?

Ecologist Rick Hopkins, who has studied the hundred-odd pumas in the Diablo Range for 12 years, says that in states which allow cougar hunting, lion attacks on humans are sometimes higher. "California doesn't have the worst problem. Hunting as a management practice is something that is frequently cited, and yet no one has successfully done it," Hopkins says, adding that a mixed policy that includes hunting might deserve study.

At any rate, Geoff says, "I don't think it matters much whether the state pulls the trigger or a hunter does." Bill Yeates says the No on 197 campaign is not opposed to the Department of Fish and Game allowing hunters to kill lions in limited quantities as part of a management plan. "We've said clearly, on the record, that's fine with us." What the No campaign is opposed to, he says, is a regular season which includes the hunting of mountain lions "for recreation."

"This is something that is unnecessary. You don't shoot lions because of food. You don't generate enough money to preserve habitat. That is not a sport," Yeates says.

Geoff disagrees. "Sometimes it's a short chase and the lion trees quickly. But a lot of times you're running for miles and miles up and down mountains and steep hills, over logs and rocks." Further, "you get the satisfaction of watching your dogs do what they're bred to do." Even state trackers, he says, enjoy their jobs.

Geoff shrugs off charges by conservationists that hunters are slackers who let dogs do all the work, or that guides will tree a lion and keep it there until a client strolls in for the kill. "Somebody that wants that kind of a hunt, they're not a hunter, they're a slob."

Bill Yeates, however, isn't buying. "Let's say it's rare. Isn't it outrageous that it's done at all?" Lion hunting, he says again, is unnecessary. "Killing a mountain lion for fun is an emotional issue. Mountain lions probably have enough problems out there with loss of habitat and diseases and hunger--we don't need to add insult to injury."

Voters will take stock of their emotions on March 26 and decide whether hunters can have their day in the field. If voters say no, research funding may be some ways off. As No campaigner Fields observes, "Hunters will oppose every piece of legislation that creates a management plan that doesn't legalize sport hunting."

Meanwhile, the California mountain lion will remain a California mystery. "I'm personally disappointed on how [hunting] seems to have captured our debate about lions and stolen the middle ground," says ecologist Hopkins. "I believe there's more middle ground than people think. They're all conservationists--they just have different ideas about how to get there."

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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