If you’re hiking a trail in the wilderness and encounter a cougar, don’t take off running.
Instead, advice from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is for those in such a situation to make themselves seem as far away from prey as they can — loud noises, waving of arms and using what equipment you have to make yourself appear as large as possible.
Though WDFW officials give recommendations for fending off wild felines, the chances of that encounter happening are extremely low. This year, however, people in Southwest Washington are reporting more cougar sightings than in the past.
According to the WDFW’s database, reported sightings are up in Southwest Washington. In Clark County 10 sightings were reported this year, up from seven in 2017. Across the whole of WDFW’s Region 5, however, sightings were up significantly in 2018, especially in Cowlitz County.
In response to the uptick in reports, WDFW hosted a talk at their office in Ridgefield to provide information and ask questions regarding the big cat species.
WDFW Wildlife biologist Stephanie Bergh spoke about the biology and habits of cougars.
Based on several studies, the total cougar population in Washington is estimated between 1,900 to 2,100 animals, not counting kittens, with ranges being any forested areas of the state, about 60 percent of Washington.
Cougars preferred areas with ample cover to keep hidden while hunting, being active mainly from dusk until dawn. The cats’ primary prey are deer, though similar animals like elk or moose are also options as were mountain goats and small mammals.
Cougar populations “self-regulate,” with single males holding territory that overlapped with smaller reaches for females. When a male dies it can lead to a power vacuum of sorts, with transient males vying over the vacant land. This can often lead to fighting and killing.
Male cougars have a range of about 100 to 200 square miles. Cougars’ ability to travel long distances occasionally leads them to appear in seemingly inappropriate areas, though generally those appearances are brief as they search for more suitable locations.
Though cougar attacks and human deaths caused by the animal are rare, Bergh did acknowledge that with having two deaths in one year — as was the case in 2018 with one in Washington and one in Oregon — it could give the perception that the animal population is increasing, but that is not the case.
As for the increases in reporting, Bergh said that the awareness caused by those recent confirmed deaths could lead to more people making reports. Oftentimes a report can be of a different animal like a bobcat, a dog or even a domestic cat.
“(There are) a lot of house cats being reported as cougars,” Bergh remarked.
Preventing attacks on livestock, yourself
WDFW Wildlife Conflict Specialist Todd Jacobsen shared ways to prevent cougar attacks, first addressing livestock.
Cougars can be attracted to other wildlife on a property which may inadvertently lead them to livestock.
Jacobsen gave one example from the spring where a resident had a cougar living underneath their porch, using it as cover to hunt turkeys being fed on the property.
Leaving animal food outside can also lead to attracting cougars, although that tends to attract bears moreso than the felines. Other tips offered included having pets inside from dusk until dawn and maintaining a well-lit property.
When a cougar attacks livestock or pets it’s often when the right animal husbandry practices aren’t in place. These attacks, called depredations, are most likely on animals similar to deer — llamas, alpacas, sheep and especially goats. Most depredations happened on small hobby farms, not large-scale operations.
A major deterrent to attacks is confining animals at night in an enclosure where a cougar could not access.
“You’re not really going to see cougars tearing apart structures to get animals,” Jacobsen said.
Other deterrents include lighting such as strobing “foxlights,” noise such as a radio and fencing.
Cougars can leap over short fences, however, which makes it less cost-effective as other avenues.
Bringing in a guard dog was another option, but that isn’t as applicable to small farms as it is for bigger operations. Among others, Great Pyrenees and Kangal shepherd dogs were mentioned as effective livestock guardians.
“Proper husbandry practices can basically eliminate (depredations) from happening,” Jacobsen said.
Hikers should adventure with at least one other individual, being sure to make noise to deter any animals from following. Cougars are not unlike other cats in that they can be curious, which in some cases leads to encounters.
Avoid dead animals in the woods as it might be a cougar cache, meaning the animal might be near. Cougars often store a kill somewhere and revisit the meal.
Don’t bring pets on hikes given that they can inadvertently lead a cougar back to the hiker. Having an animal tied up at camp is also ill-advised as they will not be able to flee if a predator comes upon them.
In the case of a face-to-face encounter, “the more you dissociate yourself from the cougar’s natural prey, the less likely you are to have an encounter,” Jacobsen said, adding that running will trigger the cougar, making the animal prone to chase.
Those encountering a cougar shouldn’t take their eyes off or turn their back to the animal. If a cougar continues to approach and attack, fight back. Jacobsen noted several accounts from people who said throwing rocks or a punch was enough to make the animal realize the person wasn’t prey.
“Again, this is extremely rare. I don’t expect anyone to have this encounter,” Jacobsen said.
For protection, Jacobsen said that bear spray was effective on cougars. He stressed knowing how to properly use the tool before heading out into the woods.
Reporting and when to use deadly force
WDFW Enforcement Sgt. Patrick Anderson provided information on how to report a cougar sighting.
In cases where individuals see an animal out in the wild, typically the department will just note the sighting.
Sightings in more of an urban setting are taken more seriously, but in some cases it does turn to be a false alarm. Recently in East Vancouver a houndsman was called in to search — based on the dogs’ reactions and a housecat seen nearby it was determined the sighting was not a cougar.
Anderson advised against immediately going to social media with a suspected sighting. In the past, community Facebook groups where such sightings were posted may have generated buzz but no action by the department in confirming the sighting.
Anderson also noted the telephone-game effect that going first to social media can have, remarking that the facts of a sighting “can get misconstrued really quickly.”
“I feel a lot of people we talk to are on edge about cats; rightfully so,” Anderson said, referencing the unprecedented two fatalities in the nation this year. He said the three communities seeing the most reported activity are La Center, east Kelso and Washougal.
Though there was an increase in reported sightings, Anderson pointed to a study looking at 2007 to 2016 where the number of actual conflicts with cougars decreased.
Though he didn’t dispute that a cougar wasn’t near the areas where reports happened, many times when hounds are brought in nothing turns up.
“The dog has a great nose. It’s trained to hunt those things and (if) it says there’s nothing here, I tend to believe the dog,” Anderson said.
“There have been cougars in La Center for years, but this year we have had an uptick in reports,” Jacobsen added, adding it was unclear if that were due to a more vigilant community or some other reason.
But it likely wasn’t because of an uptick in numbers of cougars, as Jacobsen pointed to their territorial habits as keeping the numbers in check.
Jacobsen mentioned a voter-approved initiative that banned hunting cougars and bears with dogs in 1996, after which cougar numbers increased. He said that without the canine support the cats were difficult to hunt.
Though dogs weren’t allowed, hunting cougars without them is, from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Though there are guidelines for the number of animals taken, in some situations the season remains open even past that quota.
As for justified killings outside of hunting season, Anderson said each case was different — if someone sees a pair of eyes in the dark it likely wouldn’t be, but if someone is being followed by a definite cougar it would.
Overall, individuals shouldn’t be afraid of legal repercussions if they fear for their life.
“There’s not a prosecutor in Washington who is going to (be happy) about me sending some guy to court for taking a cat out of season without a license who was doing it to defend himself,” Anderson said.