DESCANSO, Calif. — This is mountain lion country and the debate is heated over a state ballot measure that could lead to hunting of the free-roaming carnivores whose power and beauty have long inspired fear and awe.
Backers insist that Proposition 197 is needed to protect the public from an increasingly bold and deadly predator, but opponents blast the measure as designed merely to bring back a practice they find barbaric: sport hunting of the big cats.
"You don't know fear until you've been stalked by one of these animals," said Wes Barrett of nearby Pine Valley, who fervently backs Proposition 197 on the March 26 ballot.
Barrett said a lion stalked him in the woods, got within 10 feet and appeared ready to attack until Barrett waved his arms and scared the snarling animal away. "I believe in protecting animals," he said, "but I think the protection of humans comes first."
Diane Beckwith, who lives in Descanso, a mountain hamlet 40 miles east of San Diego, believes that Proposition 197 is a sneaky way to legalize "trophy hunting" of mountain lions. Its backers are using a handful of stories like Barrett's to scare voters, she fumes.
"It's the deception of the measure that upsets me the most," she said.
So it goes as California voters discuss Proposition 197, which would overturn many of the protections for the mountain lion contained in a 1990 statewide ballot measure passed easily by voters.
The biggest protection that Proposition 197 would remove from the mountain lion is the protection from sport hunting, although it would still require a lengthy process before lion hunting could be approved by the Fish and Game Commission or Legislature.
California has not allowed sport hunting of mountain lions since 1972, although Fish and Game officials, until the 1990 proposition passed, had the right to use professional hunters to kill lions to decrease the lion population or to snare them in traps.
The 1990 proposition ended that, making lions the state's only "specially protected mammal." Since then, only specific "problem" lions can be killed if it can be proved they have menaced humans or livestock.
Since 1990, killing of lions for sport or population control, or snaring them for relocation, has been outlawed. Fish and Game is even blocked from keeping mountain lions from killing the endangered desert bighorn sheep.
So what has happened since 1990 to cause the mountain lion backlash?
For one thing, two women were killed by mountain lions in 1994, one in the Auburn State Recreation Area in El Dorado County and one in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park just a few miles down the Sunrise Highway from Descanso.
Mountain lion sightings have increased multifold, many in suburban and urban areas where the animal had previously not been spotted. Ditto reports of lions menacing humans and attacking livestock.
In 1994, 120 lions were killed by hunters with permits, up from five to 10 a year in the early 1970s. All but a few of the 1994 permits were issued because lions were suspected of killing livestock.
Proposition 197 would restore to the Fish and Game Commission the authority it lost under the 1990 measure: The power to allow the hunting of mountain lions, either by sportsmen or by Fish and Game professionals, in order to decrease the lions' numbers.
Terry Mansfield, chief of the wildlife management division of Fish and Game, testified before a legislative committee that it would probably be necessary to thin the lion population 25% to 50% "to reduce competition for food between lions and thereby reduce the potential for the predatory act of attacking humans."
Now, the Legislature can authorize lion hunting only by a four-fifths majority. But with Proposition 197, it would take only a simple majority.
The debate over the buff-colored animal also called the cougar and puma has become a battleground for national groups with philosophic differences about hunting and the relationship between man and beast.
The National Rifle Assn., California Rifle and Pistol Assn., Safari Club International, Gun Owners of California and several similar groups favor 197. The Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, the Fund for Animals, Ark Trust and other conservation and animal protection groups are in opposition. So is the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation, the major sponsor of the 1990 measure.
The mountain lion has never been in danger of extinction, not even during the 56 years (1907-1963) when several rural counties in California tried to eradicate lions by paying bounties to hunters.
Current lion estimates range from 4,000 to 10,000. Fish and Game's cougar expert said the population is increasing in some areas and remaining stable in others. Sixty percent of California is considered cougar habitat.