WINTHROP Cougar sightings and attacks are up this winter in the Methow Valley, prompting state Department of Fish and Wildlife employees to take lethal action following attacks.
State wildlife officers have tracked and killed four cougars since late December, and a fifth was killed Friday by a permit-carrying hunter, according to game officer Cal Treser.
The cougar was sleeping in a homeowner’s hay barn last week, Treser said, and “consequently the mules would not come in to feed.”
He said dogs chased away the cougar, a 120-pound male, after a fight. Wildlife officers tracked the cougar Friday and didn’t shoot it, but managed to force it a few miles away from the area.
“Later on, a hunter with a cougar tag found him and shot him,” Treser said. “It was perfectly legal.”
In addition to the reported attacks, Fish and Wildlife officials have been receiving more calls from area residents who have spotted the predators.
Three calls came in from Winthrop last week, Treser said, along with a couple calls from Twisp and one from Mazama, where a woman was walking her dog after nightfall. The dog reportedly fought with a cougar until the woman managed to scare the cat off. The dog survived.
“We usually have problems with cougar during the winter,” Treser said, because they follow their primary food source – deer.
“It looks like we have an abundance of young cougar who are just trying to find a home and are running into conflicts with man,” he said. “That’s just normal.”
Whether the population is increasing is difficult to say, since cougars can be difficult to track and count, but Treser said he wouldn’t be surprised to see higher numbers.
“I honestly believe we should expect to see our population increase somewhat, or other areas populate with cougar,” he said. “If you’re not harvesting the surplus, the surplus has got to go somewhere.”
An average of six cougars are killed during big game season or in the winter, he said. Hunters, who once shot between 20 and 40 cougars every season, are killing less now that hound hunting isn’t allowed except by special permit.
“When we lost our hound hunting, we lost a very important management tool as far as I’m concerned,” Treser said.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, was part of the group of legislators that pushed through a bill in 2000 to partially repeal a voter-approved initiative in 1996 to outlaw hound hunting. The bill established a limited hunting season with hounds that was renewed in 2008 for three more years.
“It was a pilot project that worked really well,” he said, noting that although it “functioned flawlessly with hardly any problems for seven years,” the Legislature let it lapse a few years ago.
“I don’t feel like the state has got a very coherent program to deal with predators right now,” Kretz said. “We live in an urban-centric state with people who don’t understand it’s a lot more than just a cuddly little animal.”
On his own rural ranch, Kretz said he has dealt with about 30 cougar attacks. He said the issue is personal for him, since his son had a close call when he was 9 years old.
“My theory is that you need to be aggressive right at the start,” he said. “If you have a cat that’s attacking livestock and pets, it’s better to have a no-tolerance policy.”
Coupled with some incidents reported by ranchers in Stevens County, Kretz said he might take a look at the cougar issue again during the legislative session.
Treser said cougar sightings can be reported to the regional Fish and Wildlife office in Ephrata, unless there has been an attack. In that case, call the Washington State Patrol, he said. Wildlife officers are dispatched through the State Patrol.
“We try to stress to people that we need to live with cougar and they need to live with us,” he said. “We live in cougar territory and we all need to know that.”
A majority of the wandering cougars are sub-adult males, he said, which are too old to keep traveling with their mothers and are looking for territory to lay claim to.
“As those cougar are trying to find a home or establish territory, they get into trouble,” Treser said.
When people’s pets or livestock are left outside, especially after dark when cougars are most active, the animals become easy prey, he said.
To keep their animals safer, Treser said residents could keep them inside after dusk or provide a secure outdoor area, and leave a light on at night or install a motion-detector light. Farmers with large herds might consider getting sheep dogs to help keep the cougars at bay, he said.