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That spring evening in Japatul in April 2010 was warm enough that Jaime Dyer and her husband, Don, kept the windows open when they went to bed.
Jaime struggled to sleep. She’d lost six sheep the night before. Her daughter, Addie, raised them to pay for college. They’d been killed in their pen, and Jaime thought the family’s new dog, an Akita named Max, was responsible.
Midnight approached on the family’s ranch near Alpine. Jaime tossed and turned, worried about what she’d have to do with Max. They’d have to find him a new home, or more likely, put him to sleep.
Then, through the open windows, Jaime heard a sound growing outside, like a freight train drawing near. Nearly 50 of the family’s cows and calves began stampeding: snorting, screaming and kicking through the brush.
Jaime had never heard anything like it. Something was wrong. Don grabbed a flashlight and rifle and headed outside. He found the cattle circled around their calves, looking out into the brush. Nearby, two more sheep lay dead in a pen.
It was clear in the darkness that it wasn’t the dogs. They were still locked up.
The Dyers knew who to call: A trapper who worked for Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dealing with these types of conflicts was what the agency did. Two trappers, one of whom the Dyers knew through 4-H Club, came the next day. They quickly figured out what was responsible: A mountain lion.
Jaime remembers the options they outlined: Leave it alone, even though it might come back and kill more. Relocate it, even though it might find its way back. Or trap it and kill it.
To Jaime, the choice was clear. “You fear for people,” she would say later.
So trappers set out a cage and left a sheep carcass in it as bait. That night, the mountain lion returned and was caught. Wildlife Services came back the next morning.
Before they shot the young male mountain lion, they may’ve noticed a funny thing: The wild animal was wearing a thick leather collar.
Wildlife Services has killed more than 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005, including seven mountain lions. None has attracted as much attention as the mountain lion killed on the Dyers’ ranch in late April 2010.
We’ve asked Wildlife Services for extensive documentation to explain why it has killed mountain lions and dozens of other species, including foxes, bobcats, ducks and songbirds. The agency hasn’t released many of the records we requested, even though they exist and are public.
Its secrecy makes it impossible to judge whether its trappers are acting judiciously, reasonably and legally as they’ve ended the lives of more than seven animals a day in San Diego County since 2005.
The killing on the Dyers’ ranch is an exception. It played out publicly. The Dyers have repeatedly spoken about it. Even the mountain lion yielded a trove of information after its death.
Had that not happened, we would know little about it. The circumstances surrounding most of the other mountain lion killings remain unclear because of Wildlife Services’ secrecy. The incident on the Dyers’ ranch provides answers about one of the agency’s 18,700 killings: When and where it happened and what circumstances led to it.
The agency says its mission is to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. It often kills to accomplish that.
But without public disclosure, it’s impossible for us to know whether they kill to protect endangered species or simply because predators did what predators do, attacking goats, sheep or chickens that weren’t adequately protected. It isn’t possible to know whether the deaths of more than 1,500 coyotes, foxes, mountain lions and bobcats were necessary for the public good or because, as in this case, livestock owners rejected more secure fencing.
Were the Dyers an isolated case? Or the very type of people living in the urban-wildlands fringe that the taxpayer-funded agency exists to serve?
The mountain lion killed at the Dyers’ ranch was named M56. Before it was killed, it had been collared and tracked by wildlife researchers with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. They aimed to learn more about one of Southern California’s most elusive predators. They’d collared M56 in Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains in October 2009.
It was increasingly clear from their research that the Santa Ana mountain range, which stretches from Camp Pendleton north through Orange County, may be an isolated island. None of the mountain lions they’d collared moved to nearby ranges.
For the mountain lions in the Santa Anas, the isolation could spell trouble, limiting their genetic diversity and potentially making the population more susceptible to disease.
But when they caught and collared M56, the 100-pound cat taught them a lesson. The genetic cross-pollination they’d thought wasn’t happening was possible after all.
As he broke away from his mother’s protection starting near Mission Viejo in southern Orange County, M56 roamed down through San Clemente, south into San Diego County, stopping twice at the beach at Camp Pendleton, twice crossing Interstate 5. Then he turned inland, following the Highway 78 corridor. Roughly five weeks after leaving, he arrived at Interstate 15, which researchers thought was a significant barrier for a species so often killed by cars.
M56 crossed around midnight at the Gopher Canyon Road bridge, then spent a week traveling south to Escondido. Another week passed. He’d reached Julian. Another week: He turned south, through Mount Laguna, then came to another dangerous crossing: Interstate 8. He found a way across at an overpass and came within five miles of the Mexican border.
Then M56 turned west again, heading back toward the coast.
Though he was in unfamiliar territory, he had options for food on the ranchettes around Japatul. One of the Dyers’ neighbors, a quarter-mile away, had sheep. But they were in a barn at night. The Dyers’ were kept outside in a pen, surrounded by a five-foot-tall chain-link fence.
There was nothing keeping M56 from going over the top, an easy jump for a young mountain lion.
A trapper from Wildlife Services may’ve pulled the trigger, but Winston Vickers doesn’t fault the agency for killing M56. The trappers that he’s worked with aren’t bloodthirsty, he said, they don’t relish killing animals.
Vickers is an associate veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. He’s led field work for the team of researchers studying Southern California mountain lions.
Vickers believes M56’s death could’ve been prevented. Same with F14, he said, an 8-year-old female mountain lion he’d collared that was killed in 2006 after eating goats kept in an open pen in the Chihuahua Valley near Warner Springs.
Livestock owners in the backcountry have a responsibility to keep animals in well-lit, fully enclosed pens or barns at night, just as dog owners should leash their animals if they’re walking near a freeway, he said.
“M56 is very representative,” Vickers said. “The bigger issue is not Wildlife Services as an agency going out and seeking these opportunities — it’s the overall approach of our species to the predators.”
Vickers says if livestock owners secured their animals at night, they could help Southern California’s mountain lion population. Trappers killing mountain lions that have attacked livestock is the second leading cause of death among those that researchers have studied. Only car strikes have killed more. Vickers said half of the 64 mountain lions they’ve collared have been killed within a year or two. And most were killed by people: Cars, trappers, illegal hunting or fires caused by humans.
It may be having an impact on the population. Researchers are finding that mountain lions here are younger than they’d expect.
I told Jaime Dyer what Vickers had said about livestock owners’ responsibility to protect their animals. She recoiled at the suggestion.
“I do not put my animals in a cage,” she said. “If it’s sealed, you’re talking about putting my sheep in a cage. That’s what he thinks the world should do? We just don’t think of putting our sheep in a cage.”
It wouldn’t be practical, she said, and she doesn’t have the money to pay for it. If a 100-pound mountain lion wants in, it’s going to get in, she said.
Dyer said she felt bad that M56 was killed. “It was a beautiful animal,” she said. “But how would I have felt if down the road, that thing killed somebody? You don’t know, when he’s already killed eight animals.”
Her decision was made easier after M56 was trapped. The trapper told Dyer that because M56 had been caught as a baby, he was comfortable with people and dogs. A person could be next, the trapper said. The mountain lion had been treed by a dog, she was told, so researchers could put a collar around his neck.
That wasn’t true. Vickers had lured M56 into a cage much the same way as the Wildlife Service trapper did, with deer meat as bait. The anesthetic used to tranquilize M56 causes amnesic effects in people, Vickers said, and no evidence exists that handling a mountain lion once affects their natural behavior.
Mountain lions most commonly prey on deer, Vickers said. They prefer to stay away from homes and people. But give them the option of eating vulnerable animals, he said, and they’ll take the easy meal.
I asked Vickers why M56 had gotten so much attention, with stories in every major newspaper in Southern California.
M56’s death-defying trip captured the imagination, he said.
“The story was tragic on a number of levels,” he said. “We’re not saying that no animals are making it across I-15, but few do. And he was killed before he could establish territory or a mate. It adds to our worry about the genetic isolation of the animals in the fragmenting landscape of Southern California.
“He crossed four freeways. And then someone kills him for depredation —” his voice cracked “— it was just a sad story.”
My next step: In coming days, I plan to look in-depth at predators killed to protect endangered species.
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0529.
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