By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
While most of California provides good habitat for cougars that prefer mountains and foothills where they can feed on deer, people usually fail to see the elusive cats.
And while the top-of-the-food-chain carnivores probably watch people more often, they rarely attack them.
"You're more likely to get struck by lightning," said Karen Kovacs, a senior biologist at the California Department of Fish and Game's Eureka office.
The California Department of Fish and Game has documented 15 in the state over a 114-year stretch. Of those, six proved fatal.
The attack this week at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on Jim Hamm, a 70-year Fortuna man, marks the first mountain lion attack in the park and the first in Humboldt County. Del Norte County has no recorded attacks.
Park staff began monitoring lion sightings and conditions in 1994, when four attacks occurred in the state and two of those people died. Staff reports about 30 sightings for each of the past 10 years in the park that stretches through Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
"They don't like us," Kovacs said. "Most wildlife doesn't like us."
The big cats' meals range from small mammals to Roosevelt Elk. Unlike packs of dogs or wolves, they work alone and focus on a single prey.
"Typically, they're ambush hunters. They approach from behind, from the side," Kovacs said, noting the house cat's similar tactics. "They stalk very slowly, they use cover to a great degree."
The cautious, careful advance aims for results an efficient way to secure food without wasting precious energy on larger animals that could injure the cats, leaving them unable to hunt and eat.
"The groceries out there are hard to come by," Kovacs said.
Built to hunt, adult mountain lions usually weigh from 65 to 100 pounds and can kill and drag prey about seven times their own size.
"Even the tail is pure muscle," Kovacs said. "Nature is a master at designing creatures for where they make their living."
The California Department of Fish and Game sets the state's mountain lion population between 4,000 and 6,000. The count estimates the number of cats for certain types of habitat, ranging up to 10 lions for 100 square miles.
"It's hard to count, survey and estimate populations on a critter that you can't see most of the time," Kovacs said.
California is the only western state with a law banning people from injuring or killing lions.
Law enforcement officers can kill lions if they see them as threats to public safety if the animals travel near residential areas, for instance. Residents can seek state depredation permits to hunt lions if they can show that the cats have attacked livestock.
Otherwise, they remain a specially protected species under a proposition that voters approved in 1990.
After the Wednesday attack on Hamm, wildlife officials spotted two lions on Wednesday night, said California Department of Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano. Both lions showed aggressive behavior and officials could not tell which had attacked Hamm.
"We are hearing from people concerned that we had to take two lions," Martarano said. "We really didn't have any choice."
The department also hears from people who want to kill more mountain lions, citing population increases and attacks on people.
"If that was the case, I think we would be seeing hundreds, if not thousands of attacks," Martarano said of such claims.
The rare attack on a person worries some who fear a backlash reaction from those who want to hunt more lions, the last remaining predator in the Pacific Northwest.
Dave Sitton, a longtime outdoorsman and executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Images Rehabilitation & Education Center in Grants Pass, Ore. that hosts a few lions, compares the rare attacks to the frequent human deaths from vehicle crashes.
"We gotta try to keep things in a rational perspective," Sitton said, considering the likelihood of an attack. "Probably about the same as getting hit by a moon rock."