Close encounters of the cougar kind on the rise

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

EUGENE, Ore. -- When Nancy Maniago built her home here, she included a two-story window so she could watch deer who live in the nearby woods. Last summer, she saw something unexpected through that window: a cougar in her driveway.

''I started screaming to my partner, 'There's a cougar!''' said Maniago, whose new house is on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon's second-largest city.

The cougar looked straight at Maniago, showing no alarm.

''He just slowly wandered back into the brush, like he wasn't even concerned,'' Maniago said.

Maniago called the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, but was told they couldn't do anything unless the cougar had caused damage.

Her call to the department was one of 645 cougar complaints logged in Oregon last year, compared to just 151 complaints in 1992.

Cougar encounters are on the rise in parts of the West, as urban sprawl brings more people to the brink of cougar habitat.

Cougar populations are ''increasing exponentially,'' Harold Danz said. Danz, who has worked for the National Park Service, is the author of Cougar! and has researched the history of the cat's tempestuous relationship with man.

''You're seeing more of them because there are more of them,'' he said. ''They have very, very little fear of man.''

Danz estimates there are around 34,000 cougars, also known as mountain lions, roaming the United States and Canada.

Cougar populations have been rising after the repeal in the 1960s of cougar bounties, which have been replaced by restrictions on hunting the big cats.

''Most scientists agree that the fact that a lot of western states have adopted hunting restrictions has certainly helped cougar populations,'' said Elizabeth Murdock, author of the National Wildlife Federation's Endangered Cats of North America report.

There's been an increasing number of cougar sightings on the outskirts of urban areas.

For example, reports of cougars prowling around neighborhoods in Ashland, a city of 20,000 near the California border, have become increasingly frequent over the past two years.

There has also been an escalation in cougar attacks, said researcher and ecology professor Paul Beier, who published a paper on cougar confrontations.

Beier has documented 17 deaths and 70 nonfatal attacks from 1890 to the present. Seven of those deaths and 29 other attacks have occurred since 1990.

''The '90s were the worst decade for deaths and attacks ever,'' Beier said.

In January of this year, a cross-country skier was stalked and killed by a cougar in Banff National Park in Canada.

Two California women died in separate attacks in 1994, and a Colorado boy was killed in 1997.

In 1999, a 4-year-old boy survived a cougar attack while playing in the backyard of his home in Ferry County, Wash.

Residents of a home in Nevada were surprised when a cougar leaped through a bedroom window and then jumped back out again.

The rise in cougar sightings has been fueling debates over whether restrictions on tracking the big cats need to be loosened.

After a two-year debate, the Washington Legislature last year approved a bill that allows a limited number of dog-assisted cougar hunts. Previously, Washington had a total ban on using dogs to hunt cougars, which is about the only way to track down the elusive animal.

In 1994, Oregon voters approved a measure that banned sport hunting of cougars with dogs. Two years later, voters rejected attempts to repeal the measure.

But Oregon state legislators are now considering a bill that would let sport hunters use hounds to pursue cougars.

Sen. Roger Beyer, R-Molalla, said wildlife officials have been unable to cull the burgeoning cougar population and the hunting community should be allowed to intervene.

''I just think it's a mistake,'' Beyer said of the measure that banned hound hunting.

But Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the risk of cougar attacks has been blown out of proportion.

''This is not high on the human threat list. Domestic dogs are far more dangerous than cougars are,'' he said. ''It's just hysteria driven by the political goals of a small segment of trophy hunters.''

Researchers believe a wilderness area in Southern Oregon called Jackson Creek may have the nation's highest concentration of cougars -- partly because of a plentiful supply of deer and elk.

Before European settlers arrived, cougar country stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They were eradicated in the eastern United States by ranchers and hunters and their numbers were drastically reduced in the West with the advent of bounty hunting.

Cougar populations began to recover in the West as states repealed bounties and limited cougar hunting.

California doew not allow any cougar hunting and has named the mountain lion a specially protected mammal.

Most states have varying limits on how many cougars can be taken each year. An exception is Texas, where cougars may be killed year-round with no limits.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched a 10-year study on cougar behavior in Jackson Creek in hopes of learning more about the cat.

DeWaine Jackson, the Oregon state biologist heading up the cougar study, is tracking 70 cats with radio collars.

''There's obviously a good prey source here,'' Jackson said of elk and deer living in the Jackson Creek area. ''It is excellent habitat for cougars.''

Lynn Sadler, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said in an ideal world, people and cougars would never see each other.

''I think it's best for humans and lions not to interact,'' she said. ''But where are they supposed to go?''

Too many people are moving into cougar lands and don't understand how their actions affect the cats, she said.

''People who feed deer in their backyards need to understand that the predator that kills those deer is right behind them,'' she said.

The cats are highly territorial animals and will fight to the death to defend their turf. With only so much land available to both cougars and people, it could just be a matter of time before the cougar population will start to regulate itself through dominant males killing off weaker ones, said Jackson, the state biologist.

''I think what's going to happen is that things will probably stabilize, but it will take a while,'' Jackson said. ''In the interim, there's going to be lot of these individuals moving around and getting into situations where they cause damage.''

Meanwhile, Nancy Maniago said the cougar who showed up in her driveway is still in the neighborhood.

''About 10 days ago, when my neighbor went to check a trap he'd set for something that was killing his chickens, some animal had been trapped inside this sturdy metal cage and had managed to roll it down a hill and bust it open,'' she said.

''There were bits of yellow fur stuck to the door. So clearly, the cougar's still around.''

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On the Net:

National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org

Mountain Lion Foundation: http://www.mountainlion.org



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