jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

HALF MOON BAY -- A year after two starving mountain lion cubs were shot to death in this picturesque beach town, a host of officials and wildlife advocates gathered Sunday to celebrate a new law to protect and rescue the animals.

"We need to make sure our laws strike the right balance between our safety and natural resources," state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said to about three dozen proud people at Mac Dutra Park. "We're doing a good job of modernizing that law."

Hill sponsored Senate Bill 132, which goes into effect New Year's Day and authorizes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to work with rescue and other nongovernmental groups in capturing, tranquilizing or relocating the animals.

The state Legislature passed the bill earlier this year, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in September, but the town folk and wildlife advocates wanted to wait and welcome the new law on the anniversary of the traumatic shootings. They mostly beamed with pride, shook hands and posed for group pictures.

"I feel so positive about the prospect of everyone working well together," said Amy Gotliffe, conservation director at the Oakland Zoo. She said the zoo's veterinarians and animal handlers are more than willing to help in similar, precarious situations.

Wardens will be required to capture or scare off mountain lions unless they pose an imminent threat to people or public safety.

A big deal


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That was not the case a year ago on Dec. 1, when fish and wildlife wardens shot the kittens as they cowered in a back yard above a creek that separates the downtown from open land. The shooting in the small town triggered a torrent of public outrage against the state department.

"It was a big deal here," Mayor Rick Kowalczyk said at Sunday's ceremony. "Teachers were talking to their kids about it. Everybody wanted the cubs to walk back into the wild."

The death of the kittens hit Half Moon Bay especially hard, he said. Once hunted to near extinction, the wild cats have become symbols of a town that now leans toward environmental protection and tourism. The mascots of the middle school are the cubs, and the high school's mascot is the cougar. There are roughly 50 to 70 adult mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Within months of the fatal shootings, state wildlife officials actually changed the way wardens respond to mountain lion sightings. Sen. Hill's legislation incorporated some of the new guidelines and stamped the new philosophy into law.

Difficult bill

Although the bill enjoyed enormous public support, "It was a tough one to pass," said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation. There was some initial opposition from farmers and ranchers, and the threshold for passage was high -- four-fifths of the Legislature -- because the bill called for amending a voter-approved state initiative -- 1990's Proposition 117. That law granted wide discretion to wardens.

The nonprofit foundation felt wardens were killing too many mountain lions that could have been saved, but its lobbying went nowhere until the Half Moon Bay shootings last year.

One atypical mountain lion fan showed up Sunday for the ceremony. Jorge Domingo, a deer hunter and fisherman from Redwood City, drove up to show his support for the new law. He said he's passed up several opportunities to kill mountain lions and collect bounties offered by ranchers.

"What I do is fire into the air or shout to scare them away," he said, pointing to a photo of a noble lion displayed for the occasion by the foundation. "I mean, would you really shoot that animal?"

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767, and follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.