By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — After years of living on the edge of suburbia and wilderness, Bill Hill met one of his wild neighbors for the first time last month. Hill grabbed his handgun and fired.
Hill believed he was protecting his wife and young daughter when he shot at the young male mountain lion perched on a backyard wall. Perhaps he was expecting some gratitude, as the big cat was not far from an elementary school.
Instead, the former policeman, 52, has faced public criticism and could even be charged with a crime for shooting an animal that is protected by California law.
Hill's confrontation is like others occurring increasingly across the West as homes and development move into rugged areas that have been the turf of mountain lions. Revered by naturalists, cougars have rebounded in the USA and are once again competing for territory with their only predator: man.
"We did what we had to do," Lori Hill says.
Lori Hill says her neighbors have been supportive but her family has received harsh criticism from people they don't know. She says her husband did what anyone might do in the same situation.
"His emergency training kicked in," she says. "You don't know what you'd do until you're facing that situation."
Alicia Laddin, a grandmother who rides her horses through nearby Trabuco Canyon every day, says the Hills should've let the mountain lion move on.
"Evidently she doesn't like the wild in wilderness," Laddin says of Lori Hill. "If you don't like it, move away. You moved right into the fringes of it ... I would feel so blessed at just seeing it. I would just leave it alone."
Hill's shot has reverberated around this tranquil suburban area 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. It touched off an intense debate over whether he was justified in shooting the rarely seen and legally protected animal.
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Susan Kang says her office is considering whether to file criminal charges against Hill, a private investigator and former police officer in Stanton, Calif. Hill, who declined to talk for this story, told The Orange County Register at the time of the shooting "I feel terrible" about the shooting but was acting to defend his family and neighbors.
By Bob Riha Jr., USA TODAY
Development in Southern California is putting people and housing into areas that have been the habitat of animals.
Ever-expanding development in Southern California and across much of the West is putting people and housing into areas that have until now been the habitat of animals, which can and do attack and kill humans.
Even in Los Angeles and the Southern California sprawl, the more than 16 million residents are often not far from deer, bears, coyotes and cougars.
What's more, experts say, the nature of modern suburban development across the West — bringing irrigation, golf courses, soccer fields and other green spaces to naturally brown landscapes — can lure wild animals out of their shrinking habitat and into the preserves of man.
"The lions are discovering they can make a pretty good living on the fringes of suburbia," says David Baron, a Boulder, Colo.-based writer whose book The Beast in the Garden describes the increasingly common intersection of humans and mountain lions.
'Learn to exist with them'
Mountain lions, often called cougars or pumas, once roamed nearly all of North America but now are found mainly in 12 Western states plus Florida, says Lynn Sadler, president of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a conservation group based in Sacramento. The 12 states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Some sightings and kills have been recorded in the Midwest.
"People are moving out into their habitat, so we are seeing more instances of lions wandering into areas you haven't seen before," says Steve Martarano, California Department of Fish and Game spokesman in Sacramento. "We try to preach caution: Learn to exist with them."
Just down Trabuco Canyon northwest of Hill's home, signs on the patio of a popular roadhouse, Cook's Corner, warn of "Mountain lions, rattlesnakes ... Stay alert to potential danger!" On the other side of the subdivision a half-mile to the east is Cleveland National Forest, where mountain lions prowl.
At Trabuco Canyon General Store, Brendan Shounia, 17, who works there after school, says mountain lions have been the talk of the community ever since the shooting.
"Everybody knows it's a mountain lion area," he says. "It's their habitat. He wasn't doing anything, just sitting and resting. I think it was wrong to kill it."
Ray French, 78, a songwriter and retired landscaper, says he's seen cougars and understands Hill's response.
"He had to," French says. "It was only two blocks from a school. It would have got somebody. ... I don't carry a weapon anymore, but if I did, I'd kill it."
A protected species
California is the only state that has made mountain lions a legally protected species, giving relevance to the debate over Hill's shot.
California's Proposition 117, a ballot initiative passed in 1990, prohibits hunting or trapping mountain lions. Violators face up to $10,000 fine and a year in jail. Killing is permitted if it is attacking farm animals or threatening humans.
"A lot of people don't understand that mountain lions are hunted in the West, and they are hunted for fun," Sadler says.
The mountain lion has no federal protection and hunting is allowed in most other states where the animal is found, Sadler says. One state, Texas, permits them to be killed at any time, she said.
For the first half of the 20th century, mountain lions were hunted widely and some states, such as California, paid bounties to hunters to protect livestock from the animals. In 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill banning the hunting of mountain lions. That was made permanent by the 1990 proposition; voters defeated a repeal effort in 1997.
California has recorded 15 attacks by mountain lions on humans, six of them fatal, since 1890. Most have come in the last 20 years, including one death and two serious injuries in 2004.
The shooting here was just a few miles from the rugged trail where a mountain lion pounced on a bicyclist in 2004. The man, 35, had stopped to repair his bike when he was killed. Hours later the lion attacked a woman riding her bike. She was seriously disfigured.
Officials found and killed the lion and confirmed through testing of its stomach contents that it was responsible for both attacks.
Cougars are "apex predators," meaning they are at the top of the food chain, says Game Lt. Daniel Sforza, who tracked and killed the cougar that Hill had wounded.
Typically one dominant male will control an area as large as 100 square miles, he says. In California, that means half the state can be considered mountain lion territory.
"We've altered the landscape," Sforza says. "Instead of having a distinct border where the city ends, it's kind of a gray area between civilization and a wild area."
Even so, Sforza says he prefers people call 911 rather than load up when they see a mountain lion.
"We would never be able to, and I don't believe anybody would want us to, eradicate all the wildlife they feel endangered by or feel is a nuisance to them," Sforza says.