LEBEC, CA / TEJON RANCH (Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 at 11 a.m.)— Kern County Deputy District Attorney John Mitchell today confirmed that Tejon Ranch Company has settled a suit for illegally killing at least 11 protected mountain lions. Tejon Ranch has agreed to pay $136,500 to settle the lawsuit filed by the Kern County D.A.’s office for unfair business practices.
Mitchell said the one-year statute of limitations for criminal liability against any individual has passed, but the D.A.’s office was able to file a civil suit under California’s Business and Professions Code, Section 17200 (unfair competition).
"Under the Unfair Business Practices Act, any time a business violates the law, breaks a rule or a statute, the business can be held civilly responsible," Mitchell explained. "If a business is breaking the law they are getting an unfair business advantage. That gives us an opportunity to make sure businesses follow the rules and regulations. Once it turned out that Tejon employees were killing lions illegally, we decided to file the suit."
Mitchell also confirmed that it was ranch personnel, not sports hunters, who had killed the lions illegally.
"There was never any information to us at any time that anyone other than ranch employees had killed the lions," Mitchell said. There was evidence and testimony by former hunting guide Bron Sanders that he had personlly killed 11 lions.
In a wrongful termination lawsuit against Tejon Ranch—filed separately from the D.A.’s action—Sanders alleges that Tejon’s Vice President of Ranch Operations Don Geivet had ordered Sanders and other employees to kill mountain lions illegally. Sanders’ lawsuit alleges that Geivet told him to use a depredation permit meant for one lion to kill many others, and to violate the Department of Fish and Game’s requirement that the pelt of a mountain lion be surrendered to the agency. "Shoot, shovel and shut up," is the term used by Sanders’ attorney for the alleged practice of killing multiple lions under one permit and burying them.
There is now a permanent injunction against the ranch, "and it is like they are on probation for three years," Mitchell explained. During that time the company will pay $100,000 in penalties; $21,500 to reimburse the Department of Fish and Game for the cost of their investigaiton; and $15,000 to Kern County Animal Control.
"They will have to pay $6,000 per lion if they violate the injunction," Mitchell said.
Tejon Ranch spokesman Barry Zoeller said, "Our decision to voluntarily suspend the commercial hunting program so that it can be re-evaluated and reorganized as necessary…will take several months and there will be no access until the process is complete," but scheduled Department of Fish and Game hunting and navigation clinics will proceed as scheduled.
"We are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure nothing like this happens again," Zoeller said.
In a statement, Zoeller expressed "deep regret that such incidents took place on Ranch property…. Tejon Ranch has zero tolerance for such activity, which has been long-standing company policy."
He said that Tejon Ranch provided full cooperation to the Department of Fish and Game and the Kern County D.A.’s office and again claimed that the illegal mountain lion killing had taken place "without the knowledge of senior management." It is unclear whether he is asserting that the vice president of ranch operations is not a senior management position.
This is part of the February 10, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
Have an opinion on this matter? We'd like to hear from you.