By Bennett Hall

Corvallis Gazette-Times

CORVALLIS — Peter Idema has been running the trails and logging roads of Oregon State University’s Dunn Research Forest near his Soap Creek Valley home for more than 30 years.

But about 10 a.m. Aug. 31, a routine run took an unexpected twist when he rounded a curve on a lonely stretch of road and saw a cougar about 40 yards ahead.

He did his best to scare it off, yelling and waving his arms, but the cat crept toward him, finally approaching so close he was able to kick it in the head.

The startled mountain lion vanished into the woods, and Idema, thinking the animal was gone, turned and began running for home. But when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the cat was back — and gaining on him rapidly.

That’s when he fell.

Just then, however, two hikers with a dog appeared on the scene, and this time the cougar left the area.

The 68-year-old Idema says he was badly shaken by the experience. If the other two people hadn’t arrived when they did, he believes he would have been mauled — or worse.

“I thought I was going to die twice,” he said. “I really feel like if they weren’t there, I’d have been in deep trouble.”

The incident came just over a year after what is generally believed to have been Oregon’s first recorded fatal cougar attack, the deadly mauling of a 55-year-old Gresham woman named Diana Bober who had been hiking alone in the Mount Hood National Forest.

Like that case, Idema’s cougar encounter immediately set off alarm bells in two distinctly different camps: those who believe people need to be protected from cougars, and those who believe cougars need to be protected from people.

Oregon State University immediately shut off public access to Dunn Forest, about 10 miles north of Corvallis, although neighboring McDonald Forest remained open for recreational use.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, based on Idema’s description of what happened, declared the cougar an aggressive animal. The Oregon State Police and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services were called in.

Specially trained dogs picked up the cougar’s scent, then lost it, then found it again. Four days later, on Sept. 4, the mountain lion was treed by dogs not far from where the encounter with Idema had occurred, and a Wildlife Services employee killed the cat with three blasts from a shotgun.

The recriminations began almost immediately.

ODFW was criticized for overreacting, with some people arguing the cougar could have been relocated rather than killed. Some questioned whether the agency had even killed the right animal.

Idema has been raked over the coals as well. Some people have questioned the details of his story or bashed him for venturing into cougar habitat alone. Others, in social media posts and letters to the editor, have suggested he triggered the attack by running from the cougar, stimulating the predator’s hunting instinct, even though he said he didn’t turn his back on the animal until after his kick had sent it scurrying into the forest.

The one that stings the most is an anonymous letter, apparently from a neighbor, hand-delivered to his home.

‘Aggressive encounter’

One of the people involved in making the decision to kill the cougar was Brian Wolfer, ODFW’s district manager for the south Willamette watershed.

After hearing Idema describe the animal’s actions, Wolfer said, it was not a difficult decision.

“I’d call it unusually aggressive behavior for a cougar,” he said. “The cougar didn’t jump on him, it didn’t bite him, it didn’t scratch him, but it was definitely much more aggressive than we would usually see. We called it an aggressive encounter.”

Once that determination was made, Wolfer added, ODFW had no choice but to kill the animal.

“Our policy is we do not relocate cougars that are deemed to be a threat to human health and safety, and by statute, a cougar that’s aggressive toward a person is considered a human health and safety threat,” he said.

“To take a dangerous animal and place it somewhere it could encounter another recreationist, that’s just not something we can risk.”

Wolfer said he’s “fairly confident” the right cougar was killed.

Because the cougar didn’t bite or claw Idema, there was no DNA evidence to test. But Wolfer said tracking dogs picked up the scent of a single mountain lion at the place where the encounter happened, and the cat that was treed and killed was within a mile or so of the site.

In light of that information, Wolfer said, there’s no obvious explanation for the animal’s behavior toward Idema — but he added that there’s no reason to think the runner’s own actions could have provoked an attack.

He points out that Idema didn’t turn and run from the cougar until after he thought it had left the area. Instead, he faced the cat, made a lot of noise and made himself look big by raising his arms over his head and waving them around.

“From what we know, it looks like Peter did a whole lot of things right,” Wolfer said.

Dissenting opinions

Not everyone thinks ODFW’s reaction to Idema’s experience was justified.

One of them is Brooks Fahy, executive director of the Eugene-based advocacy group Predator Defense.

He accuses the state agency of having “an aggressive cougar-killing program” and sees the Dunn Forest incident as a case in point.

“I think ODFW killing that animal was over the top, but that’s what they always do,” he said.

“All the hype about cougars, all the panic, is rubbish — they’re afraid of us.”

Fahy points to the fact that Idema was not harmed by the mountain lion he met in the forest and says the animal may merely have been curious. He notes that Oregon’s standards for when to kill a cougar are lower than those in some other states.

“If you look at California and their requirements, they would not have killed that animal,” he said. “In my opinion, this was unnecessary — just close the area down for a few days and tell people to be careful.”