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Are They Losing the Fear of Us?

January 11, 2004|Janet Wilson and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

A cougar's attack Thursday on a pair of Orange County mountain bikers -- killing one and maiming another -- comes as a controversial theory has emerged that mountain lions are learning to see people as prey.

Wilderness areas that were once the preserves of hunters are being invaded increasingly by nature lovers riding bikes or carrying walking sticks -- not guns. Suffering no harm from the nature lovers, some scientists say, has taught the mountain lion that humans are not to be feared, but hunted.

"We're giving them a lot more opportunities to learn human beings are prey," said Lee Fitzhugh, a mountain lion researcher and UC Davis professor who has long predicted increased attacks on humans.

Fitzhugh's theories are getting more attention since the November publication of "Beast in the Garden," a book about cougars in modern-day America by David Baron, who profiled Fitzhugh in his book.

"Mountain lion behavior is changing in some very worrisome ways as the cats adapt to suburban life; and mountain lion attacks, while still very rare, are much more common than they were 10 or 15 years ago," said Baron, a journalist.

Other experts, however, say there is no evidence that mountain lions are becoming more aggressive. Elusive but fearless, the animals do attack humans on rare occasions -- but not because they have learned to hunt people, they say.

"This is not a new thing," said Ken Logan, a carnivore researcher at the Colorado Division of Wildlife who has studied cougar behavior for 23 years, pointing out that attacks have been documented in North America before the arrival of Europeans.

"I think 99.9% of pumas do not use humans as prey," he said. "Clearly they don't. Otherwise we would have far more people killed in the West."

To support his view to the contrary, Fitzhugh points to statistics he and other researchers have collected that show the number of attacks on humans by cougars in North America is increasing.

From 1890 to 1970, an 80-year span during which cougars were actively pursued and shot by hunters and ranchers, there were 29 recorded attacks by cougars on humans. But from 1971 through 2002 -- a 31-year period -- there were 77, nearly three times as many.

In California, officials have tallied 19 attacks since 1986. Half have occurred in San Diego and Orange counties; Southern California, from Orange County to the border, will continue to be a hot spot, he said, second only to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

The most recent came Thursday. Authorities believe Mark Reynolds, 35, of Foothill Ranch was crouched near his disabled bike on a popular trail in the Santa Ana Mountains repairing its chain when he was attacked, dragged to dense underbrush and partially eaten.

Hours later, game officials believe, the cougar attacked Anne Hjelle, 30, who was biking on the same trail at dusk.

Mauled by the animal before fellow cyclists chased it off, Hjelle suffered deep lacerations on the face and neck but is recovering.

The mountain lion believed to have killed Reynolds was shot dead in the area several hours later. Reynolds' death was the first such fatality in Orange County history and the first in California since 1994.

Fitzhugh predicts the trend will continue.

"More people will die," although attacks will remain rare, he said. Logan doesn't dispute that attacks have increased, but blames the rise not on changing cougar behavior, but on the fact that humans and cougars are increasingly in contact with each other.

Mountain lion populations have rebounded in the West since the early 1900s, as conservationists have won growing protections for wildlife, and several states have banned unfettered hunting, Logan points out. Also, as the region has boomed, more people are hiking, camping and mountain biking, naturally increasing the risk of a dangerous encounter.

"More humans are living and recreating in puma habitat than at any other point in human history," said Logan.

Logan recently helped complete a study on mountain lions in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County that indicated that cougars generally avoid people and signs of human activity, such as campgrounds and buildings.

Although about 500,000 people visit the park every year, Logan said, none of them were attacked during the two-year research project.

Fitzhugh agreed that attacks would remain rare. But he contended that individual mountain lions, especially young, hungry ones, are beginning to target humans in recreation areas as they learn to hunt. He said the Cuyamaca area was a hot spot, with seven attacks in the last decade. He recounted how humans who had had close encounters with cougars noted how the animals crouched and swished their tails back and forth while eyeing humans.

Those traits indicate predatory rather than defensive behavior, he said.

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