By Dylan J. Darling

The Bulletin

Cougars near you

Cougars are native to Oregon and are the state’s largest cat species. Cougar sightings are rare — though one of the animals was found late last month in a tree in a dense residential area of Bend near Vince Genna Stadium.

Cougar encounters

Cougars are a top predator (whose primary food source is deer). Should you encounter a cougar, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests you:

• Stay calm and stand your ground.

• Maintain direct eye contact.

• Back away slowly. Do not run.

• Raise your voice and speak firmly.

• If the cougar seems aggressive, raise your arms to make yourself look larger and clap your hands.

• Always leave the animal a way to escape; cougars often will retreat if given the opportunity.

How to identify cougar tracks

Suspect a cougar has wandered your neighborhood? Don’t be fooled:

Cougar tracks generally don’t include claw marks (cougars have retractable claws), and the heel pad has three distinct lobes at the base and is indented at the top, forming a distinct “M” shape.

Dog tracks , on the other hand, usually include claw marks, and the heel pads are more rounded.

Sources: ODFW brochure (information and drawings), Bulletin reporting

David Wray / The Bulletin

The state wildlife department stands by its decision to kill a cougar captured late last month in southeast Bend despite criticism from wildlife advocates.

The cougar, found resting in a tree on Jan. 30 off Polaris Court just blocks away from Vince Genna Stadium, was a “public safety” issue, Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said last week. She said the animal’s being close to people and out during the day were cause for concern.

“We just don’t relocate cougars (found) in town,” she said. “If you see them, there something is wrong.”

Coverage of the cougar killing prompted a flurry of critical comments on The Bulletin Facebook page, as well as calls to the paper. Dennehy said Fish and Wildlife had also heard from critics about how the agency handled the cougar.

While cougar sightings may cause a commotion, attacks by the animals are rare in Oregon. Fish and Wildlife has no fatal attacks by wild cougars on record.

Concerns about public safety can prompt workers with the department or law enforcement officers to kill cougars.

Data from Fish and Wildlife show at least one cougar killed per year for safety reasons over the past four years in Deschutes County. Statewide an average of more than two dozen cougars were killed for safety reasons from 2004 to 2013, the most recent data available.

In the Bend killing, seven Bend Police officers, two Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies and two Oregon State Police troopers, some of whom had guns drawn, responded, ready to shoot the animal if it came out of the tree. Fish and Wildlife had three workers respond .

A Fish and Wildlife biologist shot the cougar with a tranquilizer dart and workers with the agency lowered the sedated animal using a rope. After taking the cougar away they killed it with a lethal injection.

Wildlife advocates argue this was the wrong solution.

“They did not need to kill this animal,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director and co-founder for Predator Defense, a Eugene-based national wildlife advocacy organization. He called the killing of the cougar “outrageous” and an “overreaction” by Fish and Wildlife.

“I just think it is a horrible tragedy,” he said.

Rather than kill the cougar, Fahy said Fish and Wildlife workers should have taken the animal to nearby wildland and released it. The experience of being hit with a tranquilizer dart and hauled in a carrier could be enough to keep the cougar from coming back.

“They’re not going to come back anymore,” he said. Fahy said relocating cougars has been successful in other places.

In other states around the West, such as Washington and California, the cougar would have been relocated and released, said Tim Dunbar, executive director for the Mountain Lion Foundation.

“It’s working elsewhere,” he said. Based in Sacramento, California, the foundation is an education and advocacy group. Known as cougars in Oregon and Washington, big wildcats are known as mountain lions in California and elsewhere around the West.

Like Fahy, he said he did not feel the cougar in Bend was a threat.

“He wasn’t looking to hurt anyone or harm anyone,” Dunbar said, who checked out media accounts about the killing. “If they had left him alone he would have been gone by nightfall.”

Saying he understands why Fish and Wildlife workers might not want to wait for the animal to leave on its own, Dunbar said he was OK with the decision to tranquilize it. But he does not agree with the decision to kill the cougar.

“They could have easily driven it out into a wildness area,” he said.

Following agency guidelines, Fish and Wildlife does not relocate adult cougars, Dennehy said.

“Moving it would simply move the problem elsewhere,” she said. Fish and Wildlife estimates there are about 6,000 cougars around the state. Relocating a cougar means releasing it into another cougar’s territory, which could lead to fights between the animals resulting in injury or death.

Fahy and Dunbar both said they disagree with the state’s estimate of the number of cougars in Oregon, saying there are probably fewer of them around the state. And, they don’t buy the argument that relocation would create territorial disputes. They said they felt the cougar would have likely fared well in the wild.

“It’s really easy to move an animal like that back to where it came from,” said Rick Hopkins, senior conservation biologist for Live Oak Associations in San Jose, California, an ecological consulting firm.

The cougar killed in Bend was a 110-pound, 2-year-old male. Hopkins said it was a young cougar probably looking for territory of its own.

He said it was “incomprehensible” that someone would decide the cougar should be killed.

“I get it if you get an animal that really is a risk to humans,” Hopkins said, “but that animal was not a risk to humans.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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