Where peo­ple and na­ture co­ex­ist un­easily

Los Angeles Times - - Na­tional Brief­ing - mike.an­ton@la­times.com


The night of April 24, he moved through a wooded area and stopped a few miles from the Mex­i­can bor­der, just north of Campo. Af­ter two months of mov­ing south and east, M56 turned and headed north­west back into the woods.

Maybe it was the light of ranchettes less than a half-mile away. Astray dog might have spooked him. Or maybe he had picked up the scent of an­other cougar and turned to avoid a fight.

One thing is clear: M56 was about to make his first — and last — mis­take.

The dogs shat­tered the si­lence a cou­ple of hours be­fore dawn. Don and Jaime Dyer awoke and thought the same thing: Coy­otes must be try­ing to get at their sheep.

The Ja­p­atul Val­ley in the moun­tains of San Diego County is one of count­less places in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia that is nei­ther ru­ral nor ur­ban. It is coun­try where man and na­ture co­ex­ist un­easily.

Dy­ers have lived here for 55 years, ever since Don’s fa­ther traded five acres in El Ca­jon for 190 acres along a creek a few miles of rugged back­coun­try from Campo.

Coy­otes and stray do­mes­tic dogs can be a prob­lem here. Sheep are docile an­i­mals and make easy prey if left un­pro­tected at night.

Dyer had built a sheep pen from chain-link fenc­ing he scav­enged from the Del Mar Fair­grounds. It was 24 feet square and 5 feet tall — se­cure enough to keep coy­otes out.

His daugh­ter, Ad­die, be­gan rais­ing cows and sheep to sell when she was 9. They’ve won plenty of awards at fairs. More im­por­tant, the an­i­mals have earned Ad­die about $50,000 through the years, money the 19-year-old is us­ing for col­lege.

When her fa­ther reached the pen that morn­ing, he was star­tled by the grisly scene. Five of Ad­die’s 10 sheep had been slaugh­tered; the par­tially eaten car­cass of a sixth an­i­mal would be found later in the brush about 20 yards away.

“I thought it was one of my dogs,” Jaime Dyer said. The fam­ily had re­cently adopted an Akita, a pow­er­ful 100-pound hunt­ing dog that wasn’t ac­cus­tomed to be­ing around live­stock.

Jaime went back to bed but couldn’t sleep. “The thought of the dog do­ing this made me sick to my stom­ach.”

The next night, the Dy­ers locked up their dogs and se­cured their four re­main­ing sheep in the pen. About 1a.m., they were jolted awake again, this time by their stam­ped­ing cat­tle.

Don Dyer grabbed a .22-cal­iber ri­fle. Out­side, he found his cows in a cir­cle, fac­ing out­ward and shield­ing their calves in the mid­dle. They looked like a wagon train un­der at­tack.

What­ever had fright­ened them was gone. In the pen, Dyer found a lamb and its mother dead. This wasn’t the work of a dog.

“I’m about to be out of sheep,” he thought. “And my calves will be next.”

He stood in the dark hold­ing his slen­der gun and won­dered where the kil­ler had gone. He re­al­ized how ex­posed he was and felt fool­ish.

“I grabbed the wrong gun,” he thought.

Two days be­fore the at­tacks at the Dyer farm, Win­ston Vick­ers was at a county park near Campo speak­ing at an an­nual gath­er­ing of longdis­tance hik­ers about to tackle the Pa­cific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mex­ico to Canada through Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton.

Vick­ers’ topic was his ex­per­tise: moun­tain lion be­hav­ior. He didn’t know it but M56, one of his sub­jects, was pass­ing in the for­est nearby.

“Like any young dis­pers­ing an­i­mal, he was search­ing for ter­ri­tory he could call his own and mov­ing through land­scapes he was to­tally un­fa­mil­iar with,” said Vick­ers, a vet­eri­nar­ian and a re­searcher on the UC Davis Wildlife Health Cen­ter’s lion track­ing project. “What we’re look­ing at is: What de­ci­sions do they make time af­ter time?”

The study be­gan in 2001to as­sess the im­pact of li­ons on en­dan­gered Penin­su­lar bighorn sheep in the desert moun­tains of River­side, San Diego and Im­pe­rial coun­ties. Over the years, the study’s scope has ex­panded, and the move­ments of col­lared cougars have shed light on health and dis­ease is­sues, ge­netic pat­terns and the be­hav­ior of cats in the so-called wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face.

One statis­tic stands out: Of 53 moun­tain li­ons that have been trapped, tran­quil­ized and col­lared, 19 have been killed by ve­hi­cles or shot, far more than have died from nat­u­ral causes.

“The closer li­ons are to peo­ple, the more likely they’re go­ing to die,” Vick­ers said. “Any in­ter­ac­tion with hu­mans, broadly speak­ing, will likely end up badly for the lion.”

Moun­tain li­ons are fast and pow­er­ful; they can leap 18 feet into a tree and take down a bull elk six times their weight. They’re also soli­tary and elu­sive. At­tacks on hu­mans are ex­tremely rare, de­spite the fact that more than half the state is con­sid­ered cougar ter­ri­tory.

“Li­ons are among us con­stantly, and for the most part they stay out of trou­ble,” said Marc Kenyon, who over­sees moun­tain lion stud­ies for the state Depart­ment of Fish and Game. “When peo­ple re­port to us they’ve seen a moun­tain lion and ask what they should do, I tell them they should con­sider them­selves ex­tremely lucky be­cause see­ing one is very rare.”

Moun­tain lion at­tacks on pets and live­stock are more com­mon, although the ex­tent is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine. One mea­sure is the num­ber of li­ons legally killed un­der depre­da­tion per­mits is­sued by state wildlife man­agers. In the year end­ing Sept. 30, 2009, 103 li­ons were killed by per­mit. Re­lo­ca­tion is con­sid­ered too risky.

Moun­tain li­ons have been killed for prey­ing on live­stock in Cal­i­for­nia since the Span­ish fri­ars brought cat­tle to the mis­sions. In 1907, the state Leg­is­la­ture ap­proved a bounty for cougars.

Jay Bruce, a tracker and guide at Yosemite Na­tional Park, was the state’s first of­fi­cial lion hunter. Start­ing pay was $100 a month and $20 for each an­i­mal killed. Bruce killed 668 li­ons over 31years. News­pa­per ac­counts and a 1933 doc­u­men­tary turned him into a folk hero.

“If I had a mil­lion dol­lars, I would still hunt li­ons,” he told a re­porter. “The long chase over the snow, rac­ing af­ter the dogs through un­der­brush, swim­ming rivers, jump­ing chasms, alone in the wilder­ness — that’s life.”

The state abol­ished the bounty in 1963, and in 1990 vot­ers ap­proved Propo­si­tion 117, which out­lawed sport hunt­ing of moun­tain li­ons and des­ig­nated them a “spe­cially pro­tected species.”

But they’re far from en­dan­gered. It’s es­ti­mated there are about 5,000 moun­tain li­ons in Cal­i­for­nia, dou­ble the pop­u­la­tion in the 1970s.

Yet given that an adult cougar’s ter­ri­tory can range more than 100 miles, the con­tin­ued frag­men­ta­tion of their habi­tat con­cerns re­searchers, who say it’s in­evitable that hu­man con­flicts with moun­tain li­ons will in­crease.

Par­tic­u­larly with young male li­ons such as M56.

“He was like a young­ster who leaves home and is try­ing to make a liv­ing,” said Linda Sweanor, a wildlife sci­en­tist who has stud­ied moun­tain lion be­hav­ior in the West for 25 years. “They’re still learn­ing the ropes. Some­times they take risks that an adult cougar would not.”

Don Dyer’s stu­dents raise sheep, pigs and chick­ens from con­cep­tion to slaugh­ter. They grow hay and learn to han­dle a rope. In a ma­chine shop next to the rodeo grounds in Lake­side, they learn weld­ing, plumb­ing and elec­tric­ity.

“Any­thing you need to keep a farm run­ning,” Dyer said. “Fi­nals is al­ways bar­be­cued chicken.”

Dyer teaches agri­cul­ture as his late fa­ther did. But in a sense he’s teach­ing his­tory. El Cap­i­tan High School may be home of the Va­que­ros, but this for­mer ranch­ing com­mu­nity, a good drive from Dyer’s home, is now a far-flung sub­urb of San Diego. Only a hand­ful of his 440 stu­dents will pur­sue agri­cul­tural ca­reers.

“Most of the kids are three or four gen­er­a­tions re­moved from farm­ing. They’ve been raised to know an­i­mals from Dis­ney — they’re all cute lit­tle calves and kit­ties,” Dyer said. “My job is to teach them how agri­cul­ture re­ally works.”

Among the re­al­i­ties is that farm an­i­mals are pro­duc­tion units, and nat­u­ral preda­tors are a cost of do­ing busi­ness.

Dyer, 48, has lived most of his life in the Ja­p­atul Val­ley. He had never seen a cougar in the wild. Although he knows that the en­tire re­gion, rich with deer, is prime lion habi­tat, they had never posed a prob­lem.

“Fate brought him to us,” he said.

Vick­ers, the UC Davis re­searcher, didn’t know of M56’s trav­els un­til the an­i­mal’s col­lar was re­turned to him. He says it was op­por­tu­nity, not pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion, that led M56 to Dyer’s sheep. He faults the Dy­ers for not en­clos­ing the pen with a se­cured top, even if they had never had a prob­lem with cougars be­fore.

“It’s sur­pris­ing and sad that they’ve been out there that long and didn’t know what the threat was,” Vick­ers said.

But Dyer says a moun­tain lion at­tack could just as well have hap­pened dur­ing the day, when his sheep and cat­tle are scat­tered and graz­ing. He be­lieves M56 was an out­lier: the rare lion bold or hun­gry enough to risk go­ing af­ter live­stock. “You can’t build a pen with a roof on it over 200 acres,” he said. “Guys who run herds of sheep, they em­ploy sheep­herders who watch over them all the time. I’m not a sheep­herder. I’m a school­teacher.”

Later, he would teach his stu­dents how the law works in such cases. He con­tacted fed­eral agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials. A depre­da­tion per­mit was se­cured from state Fish and Game of­fi­cials. A fed­eral trap­per drove out to the Dyer place and baited a trap.

The next morn­ing, M56 was in the cage. He was grace­ful and mus­cu­lar with a flow­ing, re­gal tail and pierc­ing yel­low-green eyes. Jaime Dyer was sur­prised by how calm he was.

The trap­per re­turned with a gun. Jaime left him to do his job.

“I did not care to watch,” she said later. “Was I happy he was dead? No. Why would I be happy he was dead? He was a beau­ti­ful an­i­mal.”

Pho­to­graphs by Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

PEN: Jaime Dyer looks at what’s left of her fam­ily’s sheep in the Ja­p­atul Val­ley, an area nei­ther ur­ban nor ru­ral where her hus­band’s lived most of his life. He had never seen a cougar in the wild.

Route of M56, by week Week of March 1

March 8 Cleve­land Na­tional For­est March 15

March 22


Pa­cific Ocean


San Diego


March 29






April 5

April 12


8 Cuya­maca Ran­cho State Park


April 28

Sources: UC Davis Wildlife Health Cen­ter, ESRI, TeleAt­las, USGS Cleve­land Na­tional For­est April 26

April 19

MEX­ICO An­za­Bor­rego Desert State Park


CAGED: Dyer with a photo of M56. The cat was part of a longterm study that has shed light on cougars’ health and be­hav­ior.

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