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It’s legal to kill a mountain lion in most Western states if it threatens your safety or the safety of your property (including livestock and pets). Williams thus had the legal right to kill that lion. But did she have the moral right?

My, what a big kitty.

Photo: Predator Defense Institute.

One of the realities of mountain lions is that they are predators. Biologists estimate that an adult mountain lion needs the equivalent of a deer a week to survive. If deer aren’t handy, they’ll kill whatever is, from elk and porcupines to livestock and Blue Heelers.

I remember the first time I saw a mountain lion. I was mapping plant communities in northwest Wyoming and had clambered down into a dry creek bed to investigate a shelter cave. The floor of the cave was littered with deer bones and lion tracks.

Suddenly, I heard a low growl from overhead. The hair on my neck rose, and I looked up at the cliff edge, 15 feet above. A large, tawny cat face looked down at me.

For the longest moment, I stood there, staring at the mountain lion as it stared back at me. When the synapses in my brain resumed firing, I slowly backed out of the shelter cave and across the stream bed, eyes on the lion. Then the mountain lion vanished. One moment it was there, the next, it was gone. I hiked back to my truck with all senses on alert but didn’t see the lion again.

I was lucky. I had violated one of the cardinal rules of living with mountain lions: Never wander lion country alone. Solitary prey is easier to kill.

Despite the fact that these big cats, also called cougars and pumas, are killers, popular support for them is high. Once hunted to near-extinction as “varmints,” ballot-box initiatives in several Western states in recent years have protected mountain lions. The most restrictive, California State Proposition 117, passed in 1990, prohibits the killing of any mountain lion except in the case of an animal that poses a direct threat to people, pets, or livestock. Measures in Oregon and Washington ban hunting with dogs.

As mountain lion researcher Ken Logan of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Moscow, Idaho, puts it, “Cougars are probably the most popular ‘bad’ animals in the West.”

The favorite bad boy.

Photo: Predator Defense Institute.

Mountain lions may have won at the ballot box, but apparently no victory is permanent. In April of 1999, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted emergency protection to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep under the Endangered Species Act, thus allowing biologists to kill mountain lions that threaten the sheep, despite California State Proposition 117.

Biologists admit that grazing by domestic sheep may pose a greater danger to native bighorns than lion predation. But removing the domestic sheep is a very slow process, says the hunters’ group that requested the listing. It’s easier to kill the mountain lions.

This March, the state of Washington’s legislature passed a bill overruling the voter initiative that had banned hunting of mountain lions by dogs. Lion hunters and Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife biologists say killing lions is necessary to protect human safety.

The human population of the West is increasing much more quickly than that of mountain lions. Here in Colorado, for example, biologists estimate that between 2,000 and 4,000 mountain lions live in the state, along with more than 4 million humans.

In the conflict for space, who wins?

Nelda Williams says that she shot the mountain lion because it “got in her face” by killing her dog. I beg to differ: The lion simply ate the food she left out for it.

Williams lives in lion country. So do I. In my mind, that means it’s my job to figure out how to live with mountain lions, not their job to move out because I’m here.