Last week, game wardens killed a mountain lion in a Redwood City backyard. In August, another lion was shot in downtown Berkeley, just blocks from Alice Waters' famous Chez Panisse restaurant.

Yet despite such high-profile incidents, a permanent ban on mountain lion hunting 21 years ago and steady growth in California's human population, dangerous encounters between mountain lions and people in California are not on the increase. Actually, they are falling dramatically.

The reasons remain a mystery to biologists.

"It could be that mountain lions are learning to live with the public," said Marc Kenyon, mountain lion program coordinator with the state Department of Fish and Game. "It could be a lack of reporting. Or it could be that there are fewer lions."

The numbers are dramatic:

  • Fewer lions are being shot in urban areas. In 2001, there were 15 mountain lions shot and killed in California for safety reasons, according to Fish and Game data. By 2008, there were three. And in 2009, the most recent year available, there was one, in San Diego County.

  • Fewer lions also are being shot in rural areas. Under state law, landowners can obtain "depredation permits" from Fish and Game to kill lions that are attacking or threatening livestock. In 2009, 42 lions were killed in California under such permits, a 25-year-low, and a drop of 71 percent from a high of 148 killed in 2000 under depredation permits.

  • No one has been killed by a mountain lion in California in seven years. In 2004, Mark Reynolds, a 35-year-old mountain biker, was killed at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County. Since 1890, six people have been killed by mountain lions statewide, fewer than have died from bee stings or dog bites.

    Wrong impressions

    But in recent years, as lions have wandered into populated areas -- Palo Alto in 2004, a Pleasanton condominium complex in 2006 and the most recent two -- the public has often been left with the impression that such occurrences are becoming more common.

    "I've seen incidents where a mountain lion has been sighted, and it's reported 50 times by the same TV station. It's an attention-getter for ratings," said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a Sacramento nonprofit.

    "It increases the public's feeling that there is something dangerous. Lions are dangerous, but the misconception is that there is a lot of them. You can tell people they have a better chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery than getting killed by a lion, but it doesn't change their perception."

    Part of the reduction in lion-human conflicts may be that people are behaving more responsibly. Dunbar's group has worked in Sierra Foothill counties with 4-H clubs, teaching kids how to better protect livestock. In places like Plumas County, lions killed by depredation permits fell sharply, he said.

    Still, because lions are so elusive, understanding them is difficult.

    The cash-strapped Fish and Game Department has no ongoing mountain lion population study. Kenyon estimates the statewide number at between 4,000 and 6,000. In recent years, he said, the lion population may be declining because the state's deer population has been falling.

    Deer numbers are down due to a variety of factors, including development in rural areas and fire suppression, he noted, which often keeps overgrown forests too thick for deer.

    Another theory is that some lions that live near populated areas are being killed by cars before they can wander into trouble.

    Vast range

    Winston Vickers, a veterinarian at UC Davis, has worked on a study putting radio and GPS collars on mountain lions since 2001 in Orange and San Diego counties. Of 54 lions the researchers have tracked, 34 have died. Of those, the leading cause of death was being hit by vehicles, which killed nine lions. Disease, shooting and wildfires also were significant causes of death.

    "If you look at it from the lion's perspective, the more humans and the trappings of humans -- more cars and faster, wider roads -- the more of them die," he said.

    Gov. Ronald Reagan banned the sport hunting of mountain lions in California in 1972 for five years. After the ban was renewed by state lawmakers several times, the Fish and Game Commission approved a hunt in 1987. Environmental groups collected signatures and voters passed Proposition 117 in 1990, which permanently banned mountain lion hunting.

    Hunting groups and rural lawmakers predicted a large increase in the number of humans attacked and killed. But it hasn't happened.

    Chris Wilmers, a biologist at UC Santa Cruz who tracks lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, predicted there are between 50 and 100 lions from the Pajaro Valley to the San Francisco County line. Adult males have territories as large as 100 square miles, he noted, an area 60 times the size of Golden Gate Park.

    "Sometime between 1973 and now, populations expanded," Wilmers said. "What we don't know is if and when they plateaued. My guess is they probably plateaued sometime between 10 and 15 years ago."

    Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.