SAN FRANCISCO — In a decision that could force cancellation of California's first cougar hunt in nearly 16 years, a Superior Court judge ruled Monday that state Fish and Game officials failed to adequately assess the effect of such a hunt before approving it.
Superior Court Judge Lucy K. McCabe sent the case back to the Fish and Game Commission with orders that it spell out in writing the "cumulative impact" of a hunt on such issues as the mountain lions' habitat and their prey.
Environmentalists who brought the suit said McCabe's ruling means the 79-day season, scheduled to open Oct. 10, would be canceled. But Deputy Atty. Gen. Dennis Smaage, who represented the Department of Fish and Game in the case, said the commission might be able to act fast enough to ensure a hunt.
"I don't see why the commission can't make this finding in time. I think we can," Smaage said. He pointed out that McCabe said during the hearing that Fish and Game had gathered "substantial evidence" to suggest that a hunt was acceptable, but that there was no finding on the technical question of the overall effect of a hunt.
Fish and Game Commission members and staff officials planned to discuss the ruling by phone today. The commission will meet Friday in Long Beach to consider its next move.
Michael Remy, a lawyer who represented opponents of the hunt, predicted that the commission will have to hold a new round of hearings during which it will consider a number of new and old issues, from the effects of a hunt on the cats' gene pool to effects on their main prey, the mule deer.
"As far as the hunt this year, I don't see any way that such actions could happen," he said. "There's a real question whether, for example, in light of the rash of forest fires, it's still advisable to have a hunt," noting that much of the cougars' habitat was destroyed in the Northern California blazes.
The Legislature imposed a moratorium on mountain lion hunting in January, 1972, when the population had dwindled to 2,400. The last full season was 1970 and 1971, when 118 lions were killed.
A bill to extend the moratorium was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1985, and attempts to reinstate it were killed in an Assembly committee this year.
The matter went to the Fish and Game Commission, which voted 3 to 2 in April to issue permits to kill as many as 190 cougars in Northern California, despite opposition from environmentalists and anti-hunting activists.
The hunt drew backing after complaints by ranchers that livestock was being killed and by hunters who said that the deer population was being depleted. Those factors were coupled with reports of mountain lion attacks on two children in Orange County, although no hunting will be permitted in Orange County under the current rules.