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Supes, Ranchers Clash with Fish & Game Over Deer, Mountain Lions (Nov. 20, 1996)

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors went to the mat with the State Department of Fish and Game (F&G) Tuesday (November 12), but at meeting's end the match was declared a draw.

Backed by a large contingent of ranchers, the Supes spent several hours querying F&G officials about deer herds, mountain lions, coyotes and what benefit the County has received in return for almost $700,000 in fees paid to that agency since 1992.

Citing several conflicting reports concerning deer populations in and around Mendocino County 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches called on F&G to take immediate steps to help protect a wildlife resource he termed of “extreme economic importance” to the area.

Referring to recent F&G records which list bucks killed by hunters at a level more than 25% below those killed in the 1950s, Pinches alleged that mountain lions and coyotes preying on deer are largely responsible for the drastic decline. In 1954 (a record year), approximately 5,000 bucks were bagged by hunters, while last year only 1,300 were taken. In most years since the 1970s, F&G officials estimate that anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 bucks are killed annually by hunters.

“It concerns me that our local Fish and Game position is that our deer herds are doing fine in Mendocino County,” Pinches said. “I think there are going to be some people speaking here today that may not be consultants or experts in the field, but when you put your life out there in Mendocino County for 60 or 70 years — some longer than that — they are going to state that deer herds are at drastically low levels. There's a chance we can bring back our fisheries through different methods, but if we ever lose our deer herds, I'm not sure we can bring them back.”

According to Pinches, every year the County transfers to F&G thousands of dollars from fees on timber harvest plans and building permits yet receives nothing directly in return to enhance the local deer population or for control of their predators. In a letter to F&G, Board Chairwoman Liz Henry wrote that County officials believe “predators are having a devastating effect on our deer herds.”

Brian Hunter, Regional Manager for F&G, explained there's a variety of reasons for the current state of affairs. The so-called “environmental fees” are being held in a special court-ordered trust and can't be expended pending final ruling on a 1994 lawsuit.

Hunter also stated that F&G's hands are tied because of a pair of ballot propositions which mandated protected species designation for the mountain lion. In 1990, voters approved Proposition 117 which banned mountain lion hunting and redirected $30 million annually for wildlife restoration areas. In March of this year voters rejected Proposition 197 which would have removed the specially protected designation and allowed F&G to manage lions as with any other wildlife species.

“We're not going to get back there (to controlling mountain lions),” Hunter explained. “We tried twice (with the two ballot measures). I can see the handwriting on the wall. The people of California have said no. Albeit, not the people of Mendocino County or many of the rural counties. They voted one way, but the people in the big urban counties voted another way — and they carry the power. They don't live here. You and we do and have to live with it. It's a political reality we're losing control over things that we shouldn't be losing control over.”

Hunter also disputed the assumption that predators were primarily responsible for any perceived decline in deer population. “Yes, predators take deer in Mendocino County,” he offered. “No question about it. While it certainly affects it, it doesn't control it. There is no single factor that controls the population. If there were, it would probably be habitat rather than predators.”

Pinches disagreed with the habitat theory and retorted, “What I see is a lot of habitat and no deer. Back in the 50s there were a lot of deer and sheep and cattle. The reason for that, I believe, is the ranchers kept the predators down. Without that person out there to keep the predators in line, the deer are the ones suffering the most.”

He told Hunter that a balance needs to be struck between deer herds and their predators but that is not occurring due to F&G's hands-off policy on lions and coyotes. “We all talk about being good environmentalists and having a balance; I want to see that happen, not just talk about it. I don't think anybody is out to do away with the last coyote or mountain lion, but maybe to (reduce it to) a level that was back in the 60s or even the 70s would be acceptable. but as we can see in order to keep the mountain lion and coyote around here in this County,” he charged, “we're going to have to sacrifice our whole deer herd.”

In response the F&G official said that while there may be more habitat, it is the wrong kind. He stated that because of decreased logging activities and federal and state policies to suppress fires, less than ideal deer habitat results.

“Logging and fire are not particularly bad for deer,” Hunter commented. “Deer need ample green feed. They need to have adequate, highly nutritious vegetation.” Therefore, when trees and brush are removed — through logging or fires — new grass is normally established first.

He said that deer will not thrive where “brush is old or decadent” and of relatively low nutritional value. According to Hunter, there were more deer in past decades because there was “significantly more logging and more fires than now. All that has made a significant impact on deer populations.” One old timer in the audience said to his companion, “That was the one good thing about clearcuts: deer loved them.”

Fifth District Supe Charles Peterson prefaced his remarks by saying he was trying to “learn more about the science (of wildlife biology).” He described himself as a “proponent of mountain lions” who at the same time did not want to “see the sheep ranchers in my district wiped out.” He confessed he was “always on the wire about this stuff” and asserted, “We're split right down the middle on this stuff: People love mountain lions and they hate them.” In a light aside, he compared the great political divide over cougars to “our (same) attitude towards tourists.”

Demonstrating that her wit had not been dulled by eight years of public servitude, Henry riposted, “You aren't talking about feeding the tourists to the mountain lions are you, Charles?”

Returning to the subject at hand, Peterson indicated his research had revealed a woeful inadequacy of predator data and said there is “a lot of anecdotal evidence that makes me want to believe that we are the epicenter of mountain lion activity in the state of California. If you just took depredation permits and legal kills (of lions) alone between here and Humboldt County it (amounts to) a quarter of the entire state.”

He informed Hunter he would feel “a lot more secure in my decision-making processes if I had more information that related to Mendocino County that is not anecdotal.”

Peterson asked Hunter if it were possible for F&G to “aim some of that study money in this direction” so the Supes would have a better idea of the “real” mountain lion situation.

“With the two votes in 1990 and 1996, the Department is not particularly interested in putting a great amount of money into mountain lions,” Hunter answered bluntly.

Continuing his train of thought, Hunter said, “Even if we did have some information about mountain lions, there's nothing we could do about it (predator control). The ballot box would take us out if we started that.”

He also predicted any F&G attempt to “manage” mountain lions would be challenged in court. “The Mountain Lion Foundation and other urban groups would have us in court, wham, now!” a remark emphasized with a palm slap to the podium. “Understand, we cannot control mountain lions. It's what we call a no-brainer. People have spoken state-wide, maybe not in Mendocino County, but we can't do it.”

Offering up her own anecdotal evidence, Henry stated that on the drive over from Fort Bragg that morning she encountered “three road kills.” Attempting to steer the dialogue to something a bit more empirical, she inquired, “If you looked at the categories: mountain lions, coyotes, road kill, hunters and habitat, who kills the most deer?”

Hunter estimated that there are currently between 60,000 to 70,000 deer in Mendocino County but beyond that he didn't have the information Henry was seeking. F&G's local wildlife biologist, Jack Booth, opined that between 1,000 to 2,000 deer are killed on County roads every year. He reckoned it is “very likely that mountain lions are responsible for most kills (compared to all other causes of death).” But he cautioned the Supes there were other factors and variables which affect deer mortality. Figuring large in Booth's consideration was the aforementioned habitat equation. He recounted the winter of 1993-94 when approximately 30,000 deer perished due to starvation. He spoke of weeds, such as star thistle, that deer will not eat and which crowd out the grasses they depend on for feed. “Those (kinds of) weeds weren't a problem back in the 1960s” and now they are a “big problem,” Booth stated.

Shifting the theme from mountain lions to coyotes, Hunter was asked if the County could expect any assistance in controlling that predator.

Hunter responded that a number of years ago F&G reviewed the coyote situation in some detail before deciding “we are not in the coyote control business.” He explained that at one time the US Fish and Wildlife Service had responsibility for managing the coyote damage control program. Fish and Wildlife attempted to transfer the program to F&G but the latter agency declined the offer.

“We reviewed it and concluded that no, we don't want to do that,” Hunter recalled. He said that the beneficial effects in “managing coyotes” would inure to agricultural interests as opposed to the wildlife enhancement mandate under which F&G is chartered. Peeling the apple to its core, Hunter said, “It's (coyote control) not worth it to the wildlife; it's worth it to agriculture — and that's where ADC (Animal Damage Control) is now (US Department of Agriculture).”

Serving up the $64 rhetorical question, Pinches asked, “As far as deer herds (are concerned), if you (F&G) can't control the habitat, you can't control the predators and you can't control the road kill, then why is Mendocino County sending the Department hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Well, Supervisor,” Hunter responded, “we work with Caltrans to try to minimize highway kills. We work with landowners, BLM, the (Mendocino) National Forest and on our own (F&G) lands to improve deer habitat and increase deer populations.”

Six or seven members of the public spoke, with Chris Brennan, a Laytonville rancher, summing up what most others had to say. “I think predator control is one of the big issues here,” he declared. “I personally do my own predator control, my own trapping, my own hound-running to keep the coyotes thinned and thin out other predators. In those areas and valleys I do it, we still have a real good herd, turkey herd, and other wildlife herds and our livestock is doing better. When you go up to Mendocino National Forest there's almost no deer. You can spend days up there and hardly even see a deer track. What you will see is coyote scat, bear tracks and bear scat with fawn hair in it, and mountain lion tracks.”

He alleged that deer are almost non-existent in the National Forest and the hunting season should be shortened. He also demanded that F&G “give part of the tag money” back to the County for predator control. “You're saying you've already given up the fight,” he told F&G's Hunter. “You've caved in on the mountain lions on these two ballot issues. What's going to happen next year when the animal rightists come after our hounds and our traps? Then we're not going to have those tools for predator control). Then we're really going to lose our deer herds because we're not going to have the tools to fight any predators.”

Turning to face Hunter, Brennan concluded his remarks with, “Fish and Game has to stand up against these animal rightists and educate the public. The $30 million that's being spent every year from (Prop) 117, why isn't that money being spent to educate the public? I don't see any of that money being spent maybe except Tom Hayden (state Senator and one of the sponsors of Prop 117) gets to buy habitat down by Santa Monica.”

Both F&G officials and the Supes agreed that the only recourse was to lobby the County's delegation for assistance and possibly legislative action.

* * *

At the Tuesday session, the Supes also unanimously approved a $758,000 grant package application to the state agency responsible for distributing so-called “Option 9” federal funds to distressed timber communities. The state agency, California Community Economic Revitalization Team (CERT), is the funding conduit for ten counties designated as economically impacted by “the decline in timber harvest in the habitat of the spotted owl.” The primary fiscal premise of the 1993 Clinton Administration Forest Plan is to pump $1.2 billion of economic aid into Pacific Northwest communities surrounding 24 million acres of federal forestlands which are home to the spotted owl and, thus, supposedly off-limits to logging. California contains about 5.2 million of those acres, including the Mendocino National Forest. Theoretically, the economic aid is to be used to put “dislocated” or “displaced” (i.e., unemployed) timber workers back to work.

Prior to approving the grant application, the Supes gently grilled CERT's local representative, Michele Murray, on what benefits, if any, the County and its unemployed timber workers have received to date from the federal program. “I don't see where Option 9 or CERT has done any good in my district,” Pinches stated. He also questioned the overall process of distributing the funding and whether it was truly of any actual assistance to timber workers. The Laytonville Supe charged that consultants, grant writers and other assorted non-working class types appear to be the main recipients of the economic largess.

Peterson told Murray he would appreciate it if CERT would provide the Supes with at least “a one-page summary of what happened with the grant projects), how many people were hired, and what they did.”

While Murray was unable to provide the Supes with answers to their inquiries, she did say that “part of the criteria (for being awarded funding) is to hire dislocated timber workers.” But she admitted she did not know how many Mendocino County timber workers had been re-employed through CERT.

A just released CERT report lists Mendocino County at the very bottom of at least one important source of funding. In the years 1994-96, for rural development projects, Mendocino County received $165,000, while the nine other timber-distressed counties in the region received funding ranging from $1.5 million (Glenn) to $17.9 million (Lake).

Included in the current grant application package were two proposed projects by the Round Valley Indian Tribes. One proposal is for $75,000 to study the feasibility of building a $2 million bottled water plant which would use water from the Reservation's artesian wells. The other Tribe project is a $25,000 study to develop recreation and tourism in Round Valley. Others seeking funding are: The Mendocino Forest Conservation Trust ($200,000 for a hardwood lumber training program); the West Company ($100,000 for a micro-enterprise center); the Mendocino Land Trust ($36,000 for Coast Hwy 1 scenic corridor study); North Coast Opportunities ($74,168 for a grant center); the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance ($200,000 eco-restoration); and the Economic Development and Finance Corporation ($48,000 to attract new businesses.) 

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