HALF MOON BAY -- The shooting of two mountain lion cubs has prompted an outcry from wildlife advocates and reignited a debate about balancing public safety with the welfare of the region's apex predator.

Wardens with the California Department of Fish and Game killed the lions Saturday night in the backyard of a home on the outskirts of downtown Half Moon Bay. Mountain lion experts say the juveniles, described by Fish and Game as roughly 9 months old and 25-30 pounds, were likely siblings whose mother had died.

The wardens shot the animals rather than attempt to tranquilize them out of concern they might escape and become a threat to public safety, a department spokeswoman said. But several mountain lion researchers and rescuers expressed skepticism Tuesday about the safety risk, arguing the wardens should have brought in specialists to assess the situation before killing the animals.

"I just don't think they made a good judgment call here," said Rebecca Dmytryk, founder and director of Wild Rescue, a Monterey-based nonprofit that performs wildlife rescues throughout the Bay Area. "This would have been a perfect situation for us to have been called in, or for other wildlife rescuers to be called in to help."

The lions were first spotted late Friday afternoon in the backyard of a home in the 800 block of Correas Street that overlooks Arroyo Leon, a densely vegetated tributary of Pilarcitos Creek. The stream forms the border between a residential neighborhood and thousands of acres of open space to the east.

The homeowner, Mark Andermahr, spotted the two lions crouched in a crawl space underneath his garage. The next day the lions appeared next door in a yard on San Benito Street. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office responded, then called in Fish and Game.

'No brainer'

Given the conditions -- night had fallen and it was raining -- the wardens decided it was too risky to either poke the animals with a needle-topped stick or shoot them with a tranquilizer dart, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Janice Mackey. The cats' eyes were glassy, she said, and they seemed abnormally unafraid of people.

"If we dart those cats and they run off, we don't know there the cats are," Mackey said. "They could go 2 or 3 miles."

California wildlife rescue expert Jay Holcomb said that, although the wardens had to weigh the public safety issue carefully, trapping the animals would not have been difficult.

"Let's face it, these are cubs. They're easily capturable," said Holcomb, former head of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and current director of International Bird Rescue. "You can go to the store and buy some chicken and they'll be on it in a second. It's a no-brainer."

Holcomb and another expert said the shooting points to the need for better training for wardens and police officers who encounter cougars in populated areas as well as protocols for calling in outside groups that work with the animals.

Wardens call on specialists when it's feasible, Department of Fish and Game spokesman Mark Michilizzi said, but public safety is always paramount. And these lions were not cuddly babies, he added, but juveniles on the verge of adulthood.

"We have to be able to control the situation," Michilizzi said.

Losing lions

Scott Delucchi, a spokesman for the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, which handles animal control in San Mateo County, said wardens put in a request Saturday for a pole syringe and tranquilizing drug but didn't follow through.

There are roughly 50-70 adult mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, according to Zara McDonald, director of the Bay Area Puma Project, a research and conservation program. Cubs stay with their mother for as long as two years, she said, learning invaluable survival skills. The education of these two animals was incomplete, and starvation likely drove them toward the city.

McDonald said the incident should serve as a wake-up call to establish a more appropriate system for responding to these sightings. A similar episode occurred in March 2011, when a warden shot and killed a young adult lion in Redwood City.

"We shake our heads when this happens, because there are other potential outcomes," McDonald said. "It should inspire us to create a set of protocols to be prepared when these situations occur so that the lion doesn't always lose."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.