Whistleblower Bron Sanders with a dead mountain lion; he said he witnessed… (Rob Gayer )
The Tejon Ranch has agreed to pay $136,500 in fines and restitution for illegally killing at least 11 mountain lions to prevent them from competing for game with high-paying trophy hunters, the Kern County district attorney's office announced Friday.
The settlement capped a 10-month investigation by the California Department of Fish and Game into claims made by a former Tejon Ranch Corp. hunting guide who said he was fired after he complained about the illegal killing of the wild predators.
In a lawsuit filed in May, whistle-blower Bron Sanders said ranch managers were angry about a 1990 law that made hunting mountain lions without a special permit illegal in California. He said managers blamed mountain lions for killing deer, elk, wild pigs and other animals on the 270,000-acre ranch, the largest chunk of privately owned wilderness remaining in Southern California. Hunting generates up to $2 million a year in revenue for the company, with hunters paying up to $20,000 to shoot elk.
Sanders, whose lawsuit was recently settled, said he witnessed 20 mountain lions killed without authorization between 2004 and late 2010 on the historic ranch about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
As a result of their investigation, state wildlife authorities determined that mountain lions were, in fact, unlawfully killed by Tejon ranch employees, and that Sanders was personally involved in the unlawful killing of at least 11 of them, according to a complaint for civil penalties filed by Kern County prosecutors.
Kern County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Mitchell said in an interview that criminal charges were not filed against individuals in the case because such violations would be misdemeanors and subject to a one-year statute of limitations.
However, since state law provides district attorneys with the jurisdiction to bring civil charges against businesses, the case was filed and settled under provisions of California's Unfair Business Act, which provides for penalties, recovery of costs to investigating agencies and restitution to the public. "The company was ultimately responsible," Mitchell said.
Tejon Ranch agreed to pay $100,000 in penalties, $21,500 to the fish and game department to cover the costs of its investigation, and $15,000 in restitution, which will be directed to Kern County Animal Control, Mitchell said.
Tejon Ranch officials initially called Sanders' allegations "ridiculous and untrue."
In a prepared statement Friday, Tejon Ranch spokesman Barry Zoeller said the company "wants to express its deep regret that such incidents took place on ranch property and the company is doing everything within its power to ensure that something like this never happens again."
Zoeller also said the killings "occurred without the knowledge and/or consent of Tejon Ranch's senior officers."
Tejon Ranch has temporarily suspended its hunting operations with the cooperation of state and federal wildlife authorities. The suspension will remain in force until the company completes an evaluation of the operations.
The company plans to build several urban centers, including more than 26,000 homes as well as hotels, condominiums and golf courses, at the western and southwestern edge of the ranch. A coalition of environmental groups agreed not to oppose the development under terms of a plan to conserve 90% of the untrammeled tableau of oak forests and ridgelines considered crucial to the endangered California condor.