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California probes claims of killings of mountain lions

5/14/2011

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.—The California Department of Fish and Game is investigating claims by a former Tejon Ranch employee that the company ordered the illegal killing of mountain lions on its property south of Bakersfield.

The probe was sparked by a wrongful termination lawsuit filed May 3 in Kern County Superior Court by former ranch hunting guide Bron Sanders, department spokesman Patrick Foy said Friday.

Tejon Ranch managers gave hunting guides "special perks" for shooting mountain lions and even asked customers to participate, according to Sanders' claim. Guides who killed mountain lions were instructed to say that they feared for their lives, the lawsuit said.

Sanders, who worked for the ranch for five years, said he was fired in December 2010 for complaining about the killings. His lawsuit seeks at least $500,000 in lost wages and other compensation.

Tejon denied Sanders' allegations, the Bakersfield Californian reported.

"We conducted a thorough investigation of the allegations internally, and had all parties interviewed by outside counsel," said Barry Zoeller, the ranch's vice president of corporate communications and marketing. "Based on that investigation and those interviews, we determined that the allegations were ridiculous and untrue."

Zoeller said the company hasn't seen the lawsuit but learned of Sanders'
allegations "after he became aware that he was being terminated for cause."

California voters gave mountain lions protected status in 1991. Killing them without a state-issued permit is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Mountain lions may be killed legally if there is a threat to public safety or personal property, including pets or livestock, Foy told the newspaper.

The lawsuit does not say how many mountain lions were allegedly killed at the ranch, though it claimed one hunting guide killed more than 30 of the animals in the last several years, according to the Californian.

Lebec-based Tejon is a publicly traded agribusiness and real estate development company. It charges visitors up to $10,000 or more to hunt elk, antelope, deer, wild turkeys, bears and other game on its 270,000-acre property, which remains largely undeveloped.

Sanders and his lawyer could not be reached for comment.

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