By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California wildlife officials have adopted new rules aimed at protecting the public from mountain lions without resorting to killing so many of the big cats so often when they roam near humans, pets or livestock.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars, are classified as a "specially protected species" in California under a measure that makes it generally illegal to hunt, harm, capture, or harass the predators.
The law, however, allows them to be killed by special permit when they are deemed to pose a threat to public safety, livestock or other wildlife that are protected as endangered species, such as bighorn sheep.
Under revised regulations issued on Friday by the state Fish and Wildlife Department, property owners and law enforcement officers seeking to protect people, pets or livestock from cougars may kill only one mountain lion with each permit.
The new rules stem from several controversial killings at the end of 2012, including two separate cases in which a single permit was used in the killing of four cougars.
In a third incident that drew an outcry from animal rights advocates, authorities responding to reports of mountain lions under a home in the coastal town of Half Moon Bay killed two cougar cubs weighing less than 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms) each.
In addition to restricting killings, the new rules provide game officials and law enforcement with greater flexibility in dealing with cougars found lurking in populated areas.
In the past, authorities had just two options - to monitor a mountain lion until it left the area on its own or kill it. The updated rules allow for a third way, the use of nonlethal ammunition such as pellets or beanbag rounds to drive the cats back into the wild.
The department also plans to provide additional training on harmless methods of frightening cougars away from populated areas.
"This will increase available options for addressing potentially dangerous but ambiguous encounters," agency spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said.
The death of the two cubs last year also has prompted legislation that would allow authorities to tranquilize, transport and rehabilitate cougars, which California law currently restricts.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 mountain lions inhabit California, and the animals range over roughly half of the state's territory, frequently putting them in close proximity to people in foothill and mountain areas.
The wildlife agency predicts an increase in mountain lion encounters with people as human development expands into more of the cougars' natural habitat.
An average of 156 special permits were issued annually from 2005 through 2009, with an average of 73 cougars killed each year during that period, according to the latest available Fish and Wildlife Department data.
Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a Sacramento-based advocacy group for cougars, called the new rules a "good first step" in bolstering protection of the animal.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand)