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Cougars come to town.

Lisa Kowalski was playing catch with her family at California's Cuyamaca Rancho State Park when her father suddenly shouted: "Freeze!" Lisa, then 10, turned and screamed as a 27-kilogram (60-pound) cougar pounced and tried to bite her through her jeans. "I was majorly afraid," Lisa, now 13, recalls.

Luckily for Lisa, the cougar got distracted by the Kowalski's dog. As the two animals snarled, Lisa ran to safety. (Her dog escaped too.)

Such encounters between humans and cougars (also known as mountain lions, panthers, or pumas) used to be rare--because cougars themselves were rare. Decades of sport hunting had reduced the number of cougars in California, for instance, to about 2,000. (No one knows for sure how many existed before.) To protect the animals, California lawmakers voted to ban cougar hunting in 1972.

The species has made a dramatic comeback. "Populations have at least doubled since the 1960s," says Paul Beier, a wildlife biologist at Northern Arizona University. Wildlife experts estimate that California now has 5,000 cougars. Other Western states have thousands more.

But not everyone is cheering the cougar's comeback. Californians have seen a frightening rise in attacks. Last year, cougars killed two women in state parks. In March a mountain biker was mauled. "My kids are never allowed to go into the woods alone," says Nanse Browne, a parent in Carmel Valley, Calif., where residents have spotted cougars roaming the streets.

Some lawmakers now want to get rid of the ban on cougar hunting. Should Californians be allowed to hunt cougars again? Read on, then debate and decide.

COUGAR CONTROL

People in favor of hunting the cougars say that too many of these predators (animals that kill and eat other animals) are on the prowl. Meanwhile, populations of their favorite prey (the animals the predators eat)--in this case, deer--have declined, in part because of sport hunting. As a result, hungry mountain lions "may move into suburban or agricultural areas where there's a continuous food supply: pets and livestock," says wildlife biologist Don Neal. Hunting cougars, he claims, could help reduce the number of big cats that enter the suburbs in search of food.

Many ranchers also support cougar hunting. Last year, cougars attacked livestock more than 200 times in California, says Steve Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game. One rancher, Neal says, was forced out of business after mountain lions killed many of his calves.

Californians can apply for permits to kill cougars that have attacked livestock. But ranchers say that lions escape--and sometimes attack again--in the time it takes to get the permit. "We need to be able to kill those animals immediately, instead of having to wait days for a permit," argues Sheila Massey of the California Cattleman's Association.

PANTHER PROTECTORS

But giving hunters a new license to kill would be foul play, lion lovers say. The problem, they suggest, isn't the growing population of cougars, but the growing population of people.

Since 1970, California's human population has skyrocketed from 20 million to more than 32 million. According to Mark Palmer, director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, "a large number of these people have moved into mountain-lion habitat," the environment that provides the animals with food and shelter (see map, above).

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A cougar's habitat can stretch for hundreds of square miles. Each animal needs space to observe and stalk prey. With acres of cougar habitat becoming "human habitat," clashes between cougars and humans are inevitable, Palmer says.

In addition, biologist Beier argues, bringing back hunting will do little to reduce attacks. That's because people who hunt cougars for sport like to shoot big, older cats (because these make the most impressive trophies), Beier explains. But most of the cougars that attack humans are under two years old.

"That's the age at which they're kicked out of their mom's home range," Beier says. The youngsters aren't good hunters yet, and they don't yet have a territory of their own. So they may stray into suburbs in search of something to eat.

And while attacks on humans are tragic, Beier adds, they are still very rare. Cougars have killed about a dozen Americans nationwide over the last century. "That's a very low level of risk," he says. By comparison, auto accidents--the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.--kill more than 40,000 Americans each year.

What does the future hold for America's big cats? Read what some SW readers think (right), then come up with your own opinion.
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Title Annotation:debate over renewal of cougar hunting; includes opinion poll
Author:Doskoch, Peter
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:751
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