Oregon's cougar population has grown substantially in the last two decades since the use of dogs was banned by voters in 1994 as a means of tracking and hunting the predator. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife estimates that there are approximately 6,000 of the predator statewide—some estimate higher counts—and Central Oregon has its share.
Cougar encounters are extremely rare, but they do occur. In Bend in the past year, two young males encroached into the city limits and were euthanized by ODFW biologists fearing safety concerns. One was found in a neighborhood near Vince Genna Stadium and the other on Pilot Butte near popular hiking trails. ODFW Wildlife Biologist Corey Heath says that with continued human population growth and development, there will undoubtedly be more encounters in the future.
ODFW's policy is that if a cougar is found inside city limits, it is euthanized—a controversial policy that has often been criticized. "From a human safety standpoint, we're not going to back away and let those cougars meander through town at will. We can't do that," says Heath. "Right now, we're not going to relocate those cougars if they're in town like that. If they are outside their natural habitat, they're going to get euthanized." He continues, "Our first priority is human safety and addressing that immediately at the site." If a cougar is spotted on the edge of town or farther out, Heath says that—because they cover a large amount of territory—they will usually just move on. Still he advises residents of those areas to take precautions with animals, pets, and children. Heath notes that the state is updating its cougar plan, and some rules and policies could change depending on populations, but that will be subject to review and hearings before anything is finalized by the ODFW Commission.
Heath says there is no reason to live in fear of encountering a cougar, but he offers practical, common sense advice if one does. "Wherever we live in Central Oregon is potential cougar country. They are adaptable and widespread and can show up at anytime." He adds, "People just need to be aware; avoid jogging in low light conditions and brushy areas where they often hunt, and be aware of your surroundings." Cougars are known to travel large areas, sometimes covering as many as 150 square miles. An adult cougar can consume a deer every week. If there is an encounter, Heath says not to panic or run because that triggers a prey instinct in the cougar. "Just back away slowly while keeping an eye on it," he says. "Cougars are extremely secretive in nature and when they are seen by humans, they usually run the other way."
There are two things to be aware of: aggressive behavior when a cougar may feel cornered without possibility of escape, and predatory behavior when the animal is hunting for food. If you do encounter one, Heath says, "Pick up small children, back away very slowly, don't turn and run. Yell, throw stones, and pick up a big stick in case you need it." But since cougar encounters are rare, he reiterates there is no reason to be fearful. "Just be aware of your surroundings."