Mountain lions prey on farm animals off Ortega Highway – Press-Enterprise
An alpaca’s head and upper torso swarmed by flies lay rotting Friday afternoon inside the fence girding Kepner Farms tucked in the Santa Ana Mountains.
They were the only body parts remaining of the pack animal after it was mauled last week by what proprietor Carl Kepner believes is one of a trio of mountain lions — a mother and two male offspring — that have molested his livestock in recent months.
“I’m telling you this guy is huge,” he said of the culprit, which he estimated to be about 6 feet long from head to rump.
The alpaca is among many domesticated creatures who have lost their lives on the property located off Ortega Highway in the Cleveland National Forest, he said.
The victims include several dozen sheep and lambs, three calves, another alpaca, and about 100 Peking ducks, he said.
“What literally has happened is they have made Kepner Farms their smorgasbord,” he said of the predators.
The most recent of the sheep to be killed also was found last week.
“That mountain lion has taken out a lot of his herd, especially his sheep,” said farmhand Rachel Gordon, who believes most of the recent damage has been inflicted by one of the males.
“I would go to work and there would be two or three dead sheep,” Gordon said. “I would say the mountain lion took out a fourth of his herd.”
Kepner Farms General Manager Kyle Johnson, the owner’s son-in-law, said he has seen some of the attacks firsthand. He said one morning his wife was standing outside on the farm when she heard a commotion.
“What it ended up being was a dead sheep, and right behind it I was able to see the actual mountain lion itself on the other side of the fence digging its paws through the bottom part and trying to drag the sheep through that little gap,” he said.
Based on evidence provided by Kepner, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife on two separate occasions issued 10-day permits allowing him to have the lions killed or to shoot them himself.
The attempts were unsuccessful and the 57-year-old rancher, who takes prides in sustainable, organic farming, is ambivalent about killing them.
“We’re not going to get another predator license,” he said. “I’m always pro catch-and-release and relocating them is my ultimate goal.”
Yet, wildlife agencies are reluctant to sanction the catch-and-release approach because they believe it is either ineffective or leaves male lions vulnerable to being attacked by other males threatened by an intruder into their territories, said Winston Vickers, an assistant veterinarian at UC Davis’ Wildlife Health Center.
A participant in the recent Southern California Mountain Lion Project, Vickers said it is not uncommon for a cougar to occasionally prey on a domesticated animal.
However, it is unusual for them to return to the same site and do serial depredations, he said. Females wander a territory of up to 100 square miles while males range up to 150 square miles.
“It is incredibly rare,” Vickers said of ongoing attacks. “I can’t say it would never happen, but the normal mountain lion roams over a large area. They don’t stick in one locale. So, it’s unusual in that regard if he’s having repetitive visits on a frequent basis.”
Vickers said a most recent study found only about 17 to 25 adult lions in the Santa Anas. To survive, more young males are needed to mate with females in the area.
Kevin Brennan, the Fish & Wildlife biologist who issued Kepner’s depradation permits, said that beyond that, the agency will not intervene on private property unless it becomes a public safety issue.
“It’s up to Mr. Kepner how he pens and houses his animals,” Brennan said. “We don’t get involved with the actual depredation actions. That’s up to the individual property owners.”
Kepner, a San Clemente resident, said he’s been involved in ranching all his life and operated the farm in the Cleveland National Forest since 2010. He valued his losses at about $50,000, based on the price his products fetch at a dozen farmers markets in the region.
As the attacks have continued, he said, he has become increasingly concerned about human safety and is minimizing outside contact with the property while he seeks to buy another farm in Northern California.
“Now we’re seeing the mountain lions during the day,” he said. “That means they no longer respect our boundaries. Then, they’re no longer afraid of us.”
Based on her observations of the recent trend, including raids on the duck pen, Gordon believes the mother and one brother has moved on, leaving behind a juvenile male.
“If it was an adult cat, I don’t think it would be that much of a concern,” she said. “They kill for food and that’s it, but the younger one, he’s just killing for sport and that’s what concerns me.”
Despite the threats, Kepner said he accepts that dealing with such challenges is part of the agricultural lifestyle. It has also rankled some of his neighbors, he acknowledged.
“You’ve got to love ranching and farming or you just don’t do it,” he said.
Some tips from the Mountain Lion Foundation:
- Create a plan for protection
- Keep animals in completely enclosed pens
- Use high fences or electric fences designed to keep lions out
- Keep livestock secured at night when most predators are out
- Keep wildlife at a distance
- Conduct birthing in sheds
- Keep livestock areas clean
- Install frightening devices
- Employ properly trained guard dogs