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THE NATION

Santa Monica Mountains' Last Male Lion Hunted

A landowner gets a state permit after his goats are killed. He says he'll just scare the predator away.

December 05, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Though he insists that he only wants to scare the animal, not kill it, a land speculator received a permit this week to hunt down the last male mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains after losing five goats.

Brian A. Sweeney, who has bought more than 2,000 acres adjacent to state and national parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains, obtained the permit Tuesday and immediately brought in a professional hunter and his hounds after a state Department of Fish and Game warden verified Sweeney's claim that the lion killed his goats.

The "permit to kill," which wardens are required by law to issue after the loss of livestock, has alarmed national and state park officials, who have radio-collared the big cat and are studying its behavior. They fear that the death of the lone male, one of only a handful of lions left in the mountain range, would lead to their demise.

Already, according to federal officials, the hunter's hounds chased the lion twice Tuesday night, treeing it once. Shots were fired, and the lion ran away.

"I don't think the law was intended to call for the extinction of the species," said Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "That could have happened here if this last male had been destroyed. I think there needs to be a reassessment of the law."

Sweeney denies any lethal intent. "This thing has gotten terribly blown out of proportion," he said. "We're not killing the mountain lion. We're trying to scare it away. The last thing I need is to be known as the mountain lion killer."

During the last 18 months, the 143-pound mountain lion has been the star of a National Geographic television special and the focus of a federal study on the viability of big cats in an area that has become an island of wilderness engulfed by a sea of urban development.

The range of the male lion, known to biologists as P1, covers the entire Santa Monica Mountains -- roughly 154,000 acres. Some biologists believe there may be as many as four females left in the area, although they have collared only one, known as P2. They said she met repeatedly with P1 this fall. Park officials are hoping for cubs next spring.

"All we know for sure is that there are these two lions," said Seth Riley, a National Park Service wildlife ecologist. "Theoretically, there may be as many as five. But we haven't seen any sign of them, and believe me we've been looking."

The risk of losing the lone male set off frantic phone calls among biologists, wildlife activists and state officials, and illustrates the tenuous hold that mountain lions have in Southern California's quickly vanishing wildlands. It has renewed calls by wildlife experts for mountain residents to lock up their goats and other livestock in lion-proof enclosures at night to avoid tempting fate. It also has prompted Fish and Game to reexamine the law, passed 30 years ago and renewed in an anti-trophy-hunting ballot proposition in 1990, that says wardens "shall" issue a permit to kill lions after the death of livestock.

Last year, wardens issued 212 permits to hunt down problematic lions, and 122 mountain lions were killed, most of them in rural Northern California counties. "We're running into new situations and we don't think the law is working as well as it needs to work," said Sonke Mastrup, acting Fish and Game director. "We need to see if there is a way to help landowners protect their property and also manage mountain lion populations and their needs."

Sweeney, who like Mastrup has been fielding calls from worried public officials, wrote a letter to game wardens to clarify that his intent "under this permit is to scare/chase away the visiting wild mountain lion without causing the animal any harm." "Everyone is getting hysterical and I keep getting called," he said. "We are the last guys on the planet to want to harm a mountain lion."

Sweeney, 42, who lives in Manhattan Beach, is not a typical livestock rancher. He and his partners have made a fortune in land deals by optioning vacant property along the Big Sur and Santa Cruz coastlines, threatening to develop the land and selling it to conservation groups and park agencies at premium prices. These land deals have earned Sweeney and his partners at least $40 million and the wrath of Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who accused Sweeney of "environmental terrorism." Sweeney, through his lawyer, has said that all of the land transactions were legal.

In the last few years, Sweeney through various corporate entities has invested at least $15 million in the purchase of rugged and remote land in the Santa Monica Mountains, usually next to parkland. In most cases, the acquisitions have involved land that state or federal officials hope to purchase.

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