By Aurora Ellison
Lyons residents had a brief scare when pedestrians sighted a cougar in a city park earlier this month. The park on 13th Street was closed for about 36 hours, assistant city manager Audrey McNerney said. The county sheriff was contacted, but the park was reopened when there were no further sightings.
The city opted not to call Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which fields complaints.
“We take every sighting seriously,” Meg Kenagy, Oregon Conservation Strategy Communications Coordinator, said, but since cougars have such a large territory – up to 100 miles wide – Kenagy said of the sighting in Lyons, “you might not see that cougar ever again.”
In spite of their dangerous reputation, cougars usually avoid humans. Kenagy said there is no record of a fatal cougar attack on a human in Oregon. The greater danger is usually for pets and livestock.
In the rare event of an encounter with a cougar, ODFW advises people to maintain eye contact, speak loudly, and back away slowly (running triggers a chase response). ODFW also encourages sightings or encounters to be reported to ODFW or Oregon State Police.
Crunching numbers and complaints
Cougars were hunted with no restriction until placed under ODFW’s jurisdiction in 1967. Using hounds for tracking is the most effective way to hunt a cougar (or bear), but the practice was banned by Oregon voters in 1994. ODFW documents state Oregon’s estimated cougar population has risen from 214 in 1961 to 5,101 by 2003.
Under the “Cougar Management Plan” adopted in 2006, sport hunting with hounds is still illegal, but state agents are authorized to kill problem cougars—those attacking domestic animals or frequenting residential areas—by using traps or hounds. ODFW also sets quotas for cougar kills.
Tim Hiller, ODFW Carnivore-Furbearer Coordinator, said the quotas are a maximum, not a goal.
“The quota is set to balance level of complaints with cougar population. If we had a cougar management zone with no complaints, the quota in that zone may go down.”
ODFW doesn’t necessarily send someone to investigate individual sightings, but will definitely look into repeated sightings, especially in a residential area. “If a cougar attacks a pet or livestock, it’s highly likely that we will take action,” Hiller said, but added that decisions are made by each district’s biologist case-by-case.
In the zone encompassing the coast, north Willamette Valley and northern Cascades, the current quota of cougar kills is 120. Since 2007, kills have never reached the quota but hover around 90-100 kills, according to ODFW data. In the entire zone so far this year, hunters have killed 33 cougars, while state agents have killed 43.
At least three cougars were killed this year on a 400-acre livestock farm in the Lyons area. Leon Silbernagel has little interest in preserving cougar populations.
“They should never have quit using dogs [to sport hunt cougar and bear]. You don’t need those animals here,” he said. “Once they took the dog hunting away bears and cougars came back.”
However, he appreciates the state agents’ efficiency in killing problem cougars, such as the ones who prey on his sheep. He said even finding an animal killed by a cougar is difficult, because sometimes cougars hide the carcass with branches and dirt.
“We recently lost a lamb,” he said. “The cougar dragged it off 800 or 900 yards and covered it so well you couldn’t hardly see it until you walked across it.”
He calls the county agency whenever a sheep is killed, and a state agent usually brings hounds to immediately track the predator. If they don’t find the cat right away, they may set a trap.
Silbernagel is often forced to rely on the state agents with effective means. “You don‘t usually see [cougars] in broad daylight; if we did we’d probably shoot.”
When asked how many sheep he loses in a year to cougars, he said it fluctuates: “One year you lose nine ewes; the next, maybe one.”
Silbernagel admits his better-off-dead opinion of cougars arises mainly from the trouble it causes his livestock, but he also mentioned if he had children, “I wouldn’t really want one hanging around.”
Luck and danger
In the fall, bear and cougar tags are sold without limit. Statewide, more than 40,000 cougar tags were sold in 2009, but only 274 were filled (less than 1 percent), according to ODFW‘s Cougar Harvest Summary. In the same year, over 44,000 bear tags were sold and 698 filled, a success rate of 2 percent.
Not many people intentionally hunt these predators anymore, Hiller said; “Most of them are taken opportunistically by deer and elk hunters.”
Hunters like Ron Jelvik of Mehama buy bear and/or cougar tags along with other game tags, just in case they stumble across one. Jelvik shot a bear in the woods near Breitenbush while elk hunting last fall. Jelvik, who goes hunting “every chance I get,” has seen several bears close to Mill City in the last four years, but he’s only seen a cougar twice in his life and never shot one.
“I’ve only seen one cougar out hiking,” Hiller said, “but I’m sure a few have seen me.”
Hiller gives presentations when invited by concerned communities to give tips on cougar safety, but says cougars are “probably a lot less dangerous than people think.”
Hunters with current bear and cougar tags have until the end of the year to hunt them. Silbernagel, meanwhile, will continue relying on state agents to protect his sheep. He’s not interested in hunting predators for sport. “Some people eat [cougars], but I don’t have no desire to eat or taste it,” he said with a wry laugh.