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Cat Fight 

Cougar sightings spark debate about management

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Last Saturday, a brilliant spring day, around 6:45 pm, just as the sun was beginning to set, a hiker spotted a young male cougar sitting within sight of the trail. He wasn't on some remote, backcountry pathway, but was walking up Pilot Butte, the popular state park with trails that snake around the 500 foot cider cone that looms over Bend's east side, and sits adjacent to an elementary and middle school.

The hiker called 9-1-1, and Bend police officers responded when an ODFW staffer was not available to assist. Though police are not specifically trained in responding to predator sightings, public information officer Lt. Clint Burleigh says officers do what's required to keep people safe.

"Whenever we have a situation where the public is in danger, we need to make a decision about what to do," Burleigh says. "We're set up to help with rabid or violent dogs, but we're not set up for cougars."

Typically, he explains, when police get an animal complaint, officers go out and see if there's any evidence of a cougar. "If we find the cougar, we call ODFW," Burleigh says. "That's their specialty."

But this time, they weren't available. ODFW Wildlife Communications Coordinator Michelle Dennehy says that the department has just two wildlife biologists covering some 6,000 miles of territory. Police officers do carry tranquilizer guns, but those are intended for use on dogs—not massive cats that weigh upward of 200 pounds—and can take up to 15 minutes to work. Officers were concerned that shooting the cougar last Saturday might simply aggravate the cat and make a scary situation something much worse.

This was the second cougar spotted—and subsequently put to death—this year in Bend. The first was a juvenile male discovered lounging in a tree in SE Bend on January 30. He was tranquilized by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff before being euthanized.

But while the close proximity of these two incidents lends an impression that cougar-human encounters are on the rise, ODFW statistics show a relatively even trend, with some periodic fluctuation. Dennehy points out that the cougar population is thriving in Oregon, with an estimated 6,000 currently living in the state. Generally, the total number of cougars killed each year in Deschutes County tends to swing between five and 10—and, of those, a small portion is because of concern over human safety. In 2014, for example, of the 10 cougars the ODFW recorded as deceased in Deschutes County, just one was killed out of concern for human safety. By contrast, 4 deaths were attributable to damage, another 4 to legal hunting, and the remaining one was road kill.

Yet, as cougar and human populations both continue to increase—and to live in closer proximity with each other—conflicts become more difficult to avoid.

"In some locales, our human communities have developed in areas already occupied by many species of wildlife, including predators such as cougars," explains Daniel Gumtow-Farrior, a professor of natural resources at OSU-Cascades. "A cougar can easily travel several miles per day; through development, we have essentially moved into cougars' living rooms and instead of being surprised or shocked at sightings of cougars, we should expect sightings of cougars in these areas and work to develop effective, long-term avoidance and mitigation strategies."

But, he points out, even experts disagree on whether shooting individual cougars in human-occupied areas is an effective management response.

"Effective predator management, including cougar management, should not be based on natural human fears, anecdotal or media accounts," Gumtow-Farrior explains, "but rather based on empirical scientific data and sound ecological principles."

Those protocols, though, do not always favor protecting the cougar's life. Dennehy says that ODFW policy precludes the relocation of adult cougars because of the perceived likelihood of the animal creating problems someplace else, and a lack of available territory.

"If you relocate a problem cougar, it often goes on to create the same problems in a different area," she says. "Cougar habitat area in Oregon is pretty well occupied."

But some studies indicate that killing cougars increases conflict, rather than mitigating the threat to humans and domesticated animals. Research by the Washington State University Department of Natural Resource Sciences Large Carnivore Conservation Lab in 2012 found that heavy hunting increases the number of young male cougars and that this population is more likely to enter into human-occupied areas than older animals. As such, the researchers hypothesized that this is why killing cougars does not necessarily result in a reduced number of complaints.

What is less clear is whether these measures are to thank for the fact that there is no official record of a human being killed by a wild cougar in Oregon—and, all told, only an estimated 20 people have been killed by cougars in North American between 1890 and 2011; six of which were in California.

Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell says she's especially concerned about the management of the local cougar population, but is hopeful that increased attention could lead to change.

"I feel confident we can work with our local police force and ODFW to establish a policy that keeps our citizens safe, but also prioritizes saving the lives of the animals," Campbell says. "When they can be safely relocated out into the wilderness, they might not survive, but they will at least have a chance."

To learn more about the ODFW cougar management policy, visit dfw.state.or.us/wildlife.

What's your take on cougar management?

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