Cougars and Humans Clash

Oregon news has been abuzz about cougar sightings this fall, most notably a September attack where Mount Hood hiker Diana Bober became the first Oregonian to be fatally injured by one female cougar. In May, a Washington mountain biker was killed by a slightly emaciated male cougar, and in early October, a hunter near Mount Hood was approached by three cougars and had to shoot one in self-defense. 

Since 2011, cougar complaints have tripled in number in the Willamette Valley and state records show a record high of 70 cougars killed last year due to human or livestock problems in the Willamette Valley, Coast, and Northern Cascades region. Given these numbers, it’s easy to imagine why the average outdoor enthusiast might be deterred by the possible lethal threat of felines. But what might be causing this increase in sightings and violent behaviors, and how can we avoid or best handle a cougar encounter?

Michelle Dennehy, the Communications Coordinator at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with Carnivore Coordinator Derek Broman, offered some clarity on current cougar trends on behalf of the ODFW. But first, we’ll take a look at controversial research which links overhunting, especially trophy or hound hunting, to disruption in what some scientists believe to be intricate cougar societal relations, causing increased violent behaviors. 

Hunting & Cougar Societies
Illegal in Oregon since the 1990s, hound hunting allows the use of hound dogs in isolating cougars (typically by chasing them up trees), so hunters can decide whether or not to take the kill. In 2017, four bills were introduced and failed in the house and senate that would lift the hound hunting ban in Oregon, and since the death of Diana Bober, there has been more talk among representatives to remove the ban for population control.

Oregon is home to more than 6,000 cougars. Historically believed to be solitary creatures, research from Rob Wielgus, former director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, claims cougars have complex societal systems wherein large, older male cougars reign over vast territories encompassing a number of smaller overlapping female territories. These male territories reportedly do not overlap, and the cougars within them have been seen sharing food and interacting in a non-aggressive manner. 

Wielgus is known as a controversial figure for his work at WSU, where he was reportedly forced out and silenced after 20 years of research. Wielgus claims that trophy or hound hunting can be a major disrupter to cougars’ social stability, as the larger males are more at risk of being hunted, leading to teen males taking over their territories. These younger males have been seen acting aggressively toward resident females and are responsible for most bad encounters with humans, according to Wielgus. 

Wielgus also criticizes ODFW’s 6,000-plus population count, noting that Oregon’s estimates include juveniles, whereas other game population estimates only account for adults. This number could therefore disproportionately affect hunting quotas, as Cougar kittens rarely survive to adulthood, with an average of one per liter. Still, Oregon reports some of the highest densities of adult cougars in the country. 

With the hound hunting ban intact, most cougars, according to Dennehy, “are taken incidentally when hunters are pursuing other species.” 

The ODFW carefully tracks the age and sex of the hunted cougars as well, and at this point in time, Dennehy claims that the ODFW is “not seeing adult males being taken at a greater rate.” 

Human Encroachment
Cougars populate on mountains and are carnivores, with deer as their primary food choice. “They will also consume elk, other ungulates like bighorn sheep, but also smaller animals like raccoons and rabbits,” said Dennehy. Cougars are also known to prey on pets and livestock.

While cougars and humans normally coexist without problems “and have for years,” according to Dennehy, the encroachment of humans onto cougar territory presents a problem for the cats. 

“Growing populations of both cougars and people are pushing these highly territorial animals into the urban fringe,” said Broman, explaining that while cougars can be “quite successful” at adapting to a more urban environment, those behaviors “do lead to an increased chance of human interactions that may include conflict and damage.”

Sightings and Uncertainty
“We have seen an increase in reported sightings since the fatal cougar attack [in September], which is not hard to believe as the issue has gained more attention,” said Dennehy. 

As to why a cougar would attack a human, she explained, “It’s such a rare event that [there is] no way to determine if there is a set of factors that leads to a cougar attacking people.” Dennehy said individuals are more likely to die in a car accident, “by a long shot”, than a cougar attack.

“Cougar sightings, whether verified or not, are indeed a concern for ODFW but not entirely surprising cases in observed trends in cougar population and abundance,” said Broman.

Aggression can sometimes be caused by illness. When investigating cougars that attack humans, the ODFW “ look(s) for signs of disease, like rabies or starvation… but there was no evidence of that in the cougar that killed Diana Bober,” Broman continued. 

One factor that the ODFW thinks can increase aggression in any wildlife is the fact that people unintentionally or intentionally feed them. This is “habituating” behavior, said Dennehy, explaining that “most wild animals will naturally try to avoid people, but when people start providing food, animals can lose that fear.”

Staying Safe in Cougar Country
“Human health and safety is always the top priority for ODFW,” said Broman. 

Despite mixed theory and debate behind the reasons for human-cougar conflict, the ODFW emphasizes that there are measures people can take to protect themselves and peacefully co-exist with the native-born species.

“Just seeing a cougar in the wild, especially if it’s leaving,” said Broman, “is not a cause for concern.” But it’s hard to say how these big cats will react when they run into a human. That’s why the ODFW offer brochures and signs in areas populated by cougars to educate human hikers and explorers.

While these cats will usually sense people and leave the area, following these guidelines from one of the aforementioned brochures could help minimize any risks:

• Keep your dog on a leash, or leave it at home. “Pets running free may lead a cougar back to you,” said Boman.

• Hike in groups and make noise so your presence is known, keep children close, and carry deterrent spray like bear mace.

• Never feed or approach the wildlife. 

• Cougars are most active at dawn and dusk, so be on high alert during those times.

• When encountering a cougar, keep your distance (at least 100 yards). Stay calm and stand your ground, maintain direct eye contact, and back away slowly. Don’t run! Running will trigger a predatory response. Speak loudly and make noise (clapping works). “If, in the very unusual event that a cougar attacks you,” said Bowman, “fight back with rocks, sticks, tools, or any other items available.”

• Last, remember to report any sighting or encounters to a local ODFW office or to the Oregon State Police.

By Kiki Genoa