Allowing researchers from the University of California, Davis, to access areas of Bear Valley Springs — particularly the large open spaces to the north and west of most residential development — could advance knowledge of mountain lions.
But some BVS residents are concerned that more knowledge about local mountain lions may lead to restrictions on future projects, particularly if organizations including the Sierra Club or Center for Biological Diversity use data from the studies “as a weapon” in litigation.
Others are worried that the baiting researchers need to do to capture the wild animals for short periods of time might attract mountain lions to residential areas.
With these and other concerns apparently in mind, the Board of Directors of the Bear Valley Community Services District voted 4-1 on Jan. 12 to table further consideration of a proposed license agreement with UC Davis that would have allowed the study.
Director Terry Quinn voted against the motion that also referred the matter to the district’s Administration Committee for further investigation. Quinn had previously said he fully supported the proposal and he also seconded a failed motion by Director Martin Hernandez to bring the matter back to the next regular board meeting to address concerns raised by other directors and the public.
Support for study
Most residents who addressed the board regarding the agenda item expressed support for the district’s participation in the study. Among those speaking were Greg Hahn and Lauren Ghazikhanian.
“Human activities threaten the balance of nature,” Hahn said. He said the study will allow scientists to gather the data needed so that balance can be restored.
“BVS owns remote areas of land which are connected corridors to our neighbors' remote lands,” the former CSD director said. “By studying the behaviors of lions on BVS and surrounding lands, we can reduce human encounters with lions, we can strategize to reduce the number of livestock taken by lions by helping lions survive in their natural environments.”
Studying mountain lions “is crucial to engineering ways to coexist with them,” he added.
“I'm very happy to hear that the other public comments that have been made have been in support of this license agreement … in support of the wildlife, and the mountain lions,” she said. “Bear Valley Springs is a special place. And because we all chose to move here and live within nature, we have an obligation to protect the animals and the plants (here). If we want the splendor to continue beyond us to be here for our children and our grandchildren, then we must be good stewards to our natural environment.”
She noted that the knowledge will benefit people and the mountain lions.
“The UC Davis research will help develop wildlife crossings on Route 58,” she added. “Bear Mountain backs on to Route 58. It's easy to see how Bear Valley Springs can assist with those efforts. This is something small that we can do that's going to be probably something that no one in Bear Valley Springs sees,” she added. “We're not even going to know what's happening. But in the background, we're going to be helping these magnificent creatures and the mascot of Cummings Valley Elementary School.”
Winston Vickers, the director and lead wildlife veterinarian at the university’s Drayer Wildlife Health Center, oversees the mountain life research project and participated in the board meeting by telephone.
Director Geva Frevert noted that an area of district property to the north of the developed community runs parallel to the Randall Preserve (specifically the former Loop Ranch that was purchased by The Nature Conservancy last year). She asked Vickers why study in Bear Valley Springs is needed when there are larger adjacent areas.
“Do you think there are other mountain lions traveling within our 25,000 acres that aren’t traveling through Tejon or the Loop (Ranch),” she asked.
“Well, you never know,” Vickers said. “The more property that we have to work on, the better our odds become.”
He later noted that the university does not currently have permission to work on the Tejon Ranch. Areas of the 270,000 acre Tejon Ranch are adjacent to BVS open space to the north and west. About 240,000 acres of the ranch are under the care of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, a nonprofit organization. Efforts to reach the conservancy for a statement regarding mountain lion research on the property were not immediately successful.
Board President John Grace noted that the district has a lease with a local rancher for cattle grazing in the open space area and asked Vickers to address issues with mountain lions and cattle.
“Generally, adult cattle are not at risk,” Vickers said. He added that the program typically uses road-kill deer as bait and that the lions can only smell the deer from about 50 yards away.
“So it’s not as if we’re pulling mountain lions into a vicinity (with the bait),” he said. “If we know where cattle are, we stay away from those areas, as well.”
Director Charles Jensen read headlines from news articles about incidents around the country where mountain lions have attacked people, livestock and pets.
“I don’t think it’s wise to be baiting animals,” he said. “These are wild animals that are unpredictable; they can do anything.”
Jensen and Grace also expressed concern to the district’s legal counsel, Donald Davis, about how the matter had come before the board with a proposed agreement with the university drafted by the attorney.
Jensen said the board had previously addressed the matter in closed session.
“We did have a closed-door session on it,” he said. "And that’s why I’m surprised this appeared as an already written up license agreement.” He said the closed session wasn’t documented in the minutes or announced and “that probably wasn’t appropriate for a closed-door session, but I won’t go there.”
Davis later interrupted Jensen when he began speaking further about the closed-door session and said a question about liability remains confidential.
California’s Brown Act allows boards to have closed sessions to discuss various matters, including personnel, litigation and real property negotiations, but also requires the agenda to state the reason for closed session and report any action publicly. Board members are constrained from disclosing confidential information acquired by being present in closed session to a person not entitled to receive it, unless the board has authorized disclosure.
District General Manager Bill Malinen did not immediately respond to an inquiry on Jan. 13 about if or when the board may have met in closed session to discuss the mountain lion study. Grace said he was not in the session and it apparently took place prior to Frevert and Hernandez being seated on the board in December.
Grace also questioned Davis about how many billable hours he spent developing the licensing agreement and whether that had been authorized by the board.
“Because this is a discretionary action, we brought the issue to the board,” Davis said. “We had a discussion about it, whether to proceed. We brought it back to the board.” He also said that he spent more than two hours on the project.
Grace countered that staff should have planned public outreach and the board should have had workshops and been fully informed before being asked to vote about the matter.
“You seem to have a personal investment in this,” Grace said to Davis. “Yeah, you sell it, you sell it… you sell it very well.”
Davis did not respond, but Hernandez chastised Grace for his comment.
“That’s not the decorum that I agreed to,” Hernandez said in a response to Grace’s comment to Davis.
Hernandez was also critical of social media comments made by “a colleague.” Jensen responded by reading a comment he said he posted to social media, encouraging residents to attend the meeting. But Hernandez said that was not the comment he was referring to and Grace ended the discussion, which had become somewhat heated.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.