Wildlife officials say cougars like the one shot and killed in southwest Bend last weekend aren’t going away any time soon.
“It’s going to be a fact of life, at least in the immediate future,” said Corey Heath, wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
On Feb. 6, the state wildlife agency confirmed that tracks found in River Canyon Estates, a southwest Bend subdivision, belonged to a large cougar. The cougar, a 135-pound adult male, reappeared a day later, a couple miles south in Deschutes River Woods. Heath said the agency initially intended to let the cougar continue on its way.
However, when it began hunting deer in the neighborhood, ODFW contacted Bend Police and began tracking the cougar, citing a danger to human safety.
The cougar was shot and killed Saturday, but Heath warned that other cougars could be living in the Deschutes River canyon, citing unconfirmed reports of one spotted in the same area several days after the first cougar was killed.
Experts agree that cougar sightings are getting more common in Central Oregon and across the Pacific Northwest, as both cougars and human populations continue to grow in the area.
“There are more cougars around Bend than people realize,” said John Laundré, assistant professor at Western Oregon University.
Cougars are the largest species of cat found in Oregon and were once abundant throughout the state’s forests. However, early farmers and loggers came into conflict with the predators, and bounties were placed on cougars as early as 1843, according to ODFW’s management plan, which was updated in 2017. By 1960, barely 200 cougars remained statewide, according to the plan. The population has slowly recovered over the past six decades, and Heath said Oregon is now home to approximately 6,500 cougars.
However, Oregon’s human population has skyrocketed during that period as well, particularly in areas adjacent to forests where cougars make their homes. In Central Oregon, this has brought a rash of cougar sightings.
In August, a cougar was killed by authorities after being spotted roaming through Three Rivers neighborhood by Lake Billy Chinook. A few days later, a farmer living east of Bend shot and killed a cougar on his property after it killed two Shetland sheep and a turkey.
Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a cougar made headlines in Washington in May when it attacked cyclists in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains near Seattle, killing one and injuring another. It was the first time a cougar had killed someone in Washington in 94 years. A few months later, an animal believed to be a cougar attacked and killed a Gresham woman near Mount Hood.
David Stoner, a research professor at Utah State University, said cougar attacks are rare, but they aren’t evenly distributed across the cats’ range. Stoner said attacks are heavily concentrated in British Columbia, and on Vancouver Island more specifically, though researchers aren’t sure exactly why.
Stoner attributed the uptick in sightings to a growing number of people living and recreating in forested mountain areas where cougars make their home.
“There’s simply more people out there, and more eyes to observe,” Stoner said.
Additionally, he said up to 90 percent of reported sightings are based on people mistaking deer, bobcats and other large animals for cougars. As cougars and reports of attacks get more common, so do cases of mistaken identity.
Because cougars rely heavily on deer and other ungulates as prey, Heath said changes to Central Oregon’s deer population affect cougars in the region as well. While Central Oregon’s overall deer population has declined significantly over the past several decades, the number of deer living in or near urban areas has remained relatively steady, Heath said.
Moreover, he said deer that live in cities tend to be calmer and less wary of potential predators than those living in the wilderness. While Heath said cougars tend to avoid humans where possible, the promise of an easier meal can lure the cats into urban areas.
“Apparently this one felt it was worth the risk,” Heath said, referring to the cougar shot in Bend over the weekend.
At around 135 pounds, the cougar killed in southwest Bend was about average for an adult male, though Heath said it’s rare for a fully grown cougar to enter an urban area.
Heath speculated that the cougar killed in southwest Bend may have been using the Deschutes River canyon as a travel corridor, journeying up to the nearby neighborhoods to feed. Cougars are largely solitary animals, and the promise of a largely abandoned swath of nature may have been too appealing to pass up, Heath said.
ODFW’s management plan, which was last updated in 2017, allows anyone with a hunting license to purchase a tag to kill cougars. ODFW also has discretion to remove animals that are causing problems for humans or livestock, according to the plan. In Oregon, more than 500 cougars are killed each year, Laundré said.
Laundré criticized the agency’s approach to allowing cougar hunts, arguing that the state’s cougar population estimates are inflated because the agency counts kittens alongside mature cougars. If kittens are removed, Laundré said Oregon’s cougar population is about as dense as the population in California, where it is illegal to hunt cougars.
Heath said ODFW tries not to kill cougars that wander through populated areas. However, he said human safety supersedes other priorities.
“Cougars are great and magnificent animals, but we absolutely don’t want anything to happen to a human,” Heath said. “That would be absolutely tragic.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, email@example.com