Mountain lion on the Arroyo Trabuco Trail in O’Neill Regional Park.
Residents of Trabuco and Modjeska Canyon are currently battling with a local mountain lion lurking around their properties and killing livestock. These past few months, the cat has been traveling between canyons, and the main concern is the safety of residents, children and other animals. Instead of eliminating the local cougar, there are steps that residents can take to cougar-proof their enclosures and still coexist with local mountain lions.
“It didn’t start getting reported until about two weeks ago when it killed two sheep at my neighbors’ house,” said Taylor Coker, who lives in Modjeska Canyon. “That was the first report, and then the neighbors up the street, the llama that it killed, was the second report.”
Coker and her father help out their neighbors when these incidents arise, she said.
“So basically, a few nights ago when it killed my neighbors’ llama, it dragged it down the hill where they saw the vultures circling it, so they called me and my dad to go check out the carcass,” she said. “So we brought a camera with us, like a game camera, and we hiked down where we saw the llama carcass to put up the game camera, and that night it got pictures of it feeding on the carcass.”
Danielle Judd, the president and co-founder of Farmhouse Rescue, lost a sheep and an 11-month-old lamb to a mountain lion on their residence in Trabuco Canyon.
“It’s pretty bad,” she said. “It took a sheep and a lamb, the mom and the daughter, and it was my daughter’s favorite that she played with. That lamb was born here, he played soccer and helped so many kids that were sick, it was just the sweetest thing in the world.”
Judd then set up game cameras to catch the mountain lion returning to the spot so that she has proof for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about the current activity. The department then sent someone out to authorize permission to shoot the lion with a beanbag gun, but her concern is her children’s safety.
Korrina Domingo, a wildlife biologist and the co-founder of Cougar Conservancy, focuses on coexisting with mountain lions and conflict management. Their mission is to reduce human-wildlife conflict and conserve cougar populations through science-based management and conservation.
In 2016, Domingo became an integral part of Assembly Bill 8, which would authorize rather than require the issuance of depredation permits. These permits would give a landowner authorization to kill a mountain lion legally, typically after being attacked or preyed upon livestock.
“Killing that one cougar, who may have depredated on one of these alpacas, is not going to resolve further conflict on your property,” Domingo said. “One study in Northern California found that on one property, there were three different collared cougars that had depredated, one after the other. Killing that first lion after the first depredation would not have prevented the second depredation from happening or the third.”
These incidents are reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, established in 1870, responsible for regulating sport fishing and hunting. Mountain lions are specially protected in California under a 2017 amendment.
Under the guidance for mountain lion incidents, the 2017 amendment of the depredation policy states that a department employee or a department-authorized animal damage control officer must verify the incident and grant a permit as soon as practical. The process is called the Stepwise Policy for Mountain Lion Incidents and requires three depredation events to authorize a non-lethal permit to haze the lion.
Domingo also co-led efforts to track mountain lions under the California Endangered Species Act, which gave cougars temporary protective status in 2020 and ultimately led to the modification of the Stepwise Policy. She held her first online Zoom event for Coexisting with Cougars in the Santa Ana Mountains, where she discussed conflict prevention.
Cougar conservancy aids residents in cougar-proof enclosures and hands-on training to avoid these incidents from repeating themselves. Domingo also helps educate residents on keeping their children safe on the property by suggesting they carry a small air horn or bear spray.
“An air horn can be used to deter a cougar away from an area, and bear spray is also a form of protection that can be effective if you know how to use it,” Domingo said. “Be sure that you know how to store your bear spray and that you read the label. Every brand has different instructions, and you want to make sure that you get the training canister, that you know how to deploy it and that you have deployed it before with the inert spray.”
The Cougar Conservancy also has recommendations on safety tips for recreational activities. First and foremost, pay attention to the surrounding area, stay on marked trails, hike in groups and make noise, supervise children and make sure they stay close to adults, do not approach an animal carcass, and make sure air horns or bear sprays are accessible. Lastly, they recommend keeping dogs on a leash that is less than six feet long to prevent them from getting into any trouble.
If there is an encounter with a cougar, the conservancy recommends not to run away or make any sudden movements. Stand together in a group and pick up small children but don’t turn around or crouch down. It is essential to give the cougar an escape route and leave them plenty of room on the trail to get by.
“I have interviewed many people who have had encounters with cougars, and a lot of the time, the cougar actually doesn’t want to turn its back to you either,” Domingo said. “Sometimes they’ll turn around and leave when they see you, but oftentimes, you’re encountering an animal that is coming towards you, and you’re going towards it, and oftentimes the cougar is going to want to go past you, not away from you.”
These safety tips will provide hikers with the tools needed to resolve a possible encounter with a mountain lion. OC Parks has already closed Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park due to recent sightings.