Cougar trapped near Carlton tagged, collared and released within his range

ByJoyce Campbell

A cougar captured and released on Friday the 13th was a lucky guy, unlike the alpaca he is accused of killing and feeding on.

He’ll need a lot of luck if he is to survive. The two-year-old cat is part of a decreasing population of cougars in Okanogan County. Hunting and territorial fighting among cougars has depleted the cougar population, according to Rich Beausoleil, the bear and cougar expert who has been studying cougars in Okanogan County for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for five years.

“Our research has shown the cougar population in Okanogan County has been reduced. It’s been steadily declining for about the past four years,” said Beausoleil. A WDFW survey of Okanogan residents showed most people wanted fewer cougars. “That goal has been accomplished,” he said.

Three days after setting a live trap, wildlife enforcement agents captured the thin, 112-pound cat, sedated him, collected data about him and turned him loose at the far reaches of his territory with a dog named Cash on his heels.

The Karelian bear dog is part of the “tough love” or aversive conditioning used to give the cat a negative experience so it stays away from areas occupied by humans. In addition to the negativity associated with the trapping, darting and handling, the cat was hazed with the dog, which pushed it in the direction the agents wanted it to go.

The cat also got a radio-collar and a name, Libby. Youngsters on their way to the school bus stop at the mouth of Libby Creek got a wildlife lesson and six-year-old Annika Libby named the cat for Beausoleil’s database.

The trap was placed on the county road Wednesday by WDFW wildlife enforcement agents Cal Treser and Brent Scherzinger after responding to a livestock predation complaint by the alpaca’s owner, Carl Rapp.

Rapp’s neighbors, Ken Libby and his daughter, Annika, had seen a cougar pulling what appeared to be a dead sheep over the road bank on their way to the bus stop on Tuesday morning, March 10. Libby remembers telling his daughter, “Annika, you got to see a cougar. Some people live their whole lives without seeing one.”

The cougar was attracted to the alpaca carcass used to bait the live-trap cage and the trapped animal drew the attention of parents, kids and local shutterbugs. The cat bounced off the cage as cars went by, and was alternately snarling and purring for the passersby. He groomed himself and was sun bathing in the chill morning air when the first wildlife agent arrived.

The cougar was lucky to be in the trap. “In the past, we just euthanized them,” said Cal Treser, the WDFW enforcement officer who helped set up the trap. “A lot of times I base my decision on trapping or killing it on the property owner’s decision. Treser said some cat complaints are resolved by chasing problem animals away from ski trails or towns using dogs.

“People with sheep and goats and larger animals should put them in a barn at night or enclose them in a six- to eight-foot fence,” said Treser. Having a dog usually helps keep predators away. He said a lot of people raise a puppy like a Great Pyrenees to be part of a herd.

“We tell people in winter to take their pets inside early,” said Treser. “Dusk is at 4:30 in December and it’s a bad time to let your dog out.” Treser responds to complaints quickly especially if an animal has been killed. He identifies a cougar kill to be sure it’s not caused by dogs.

The option to trap and relocate problem cougars developed from a WDFW cougar research project. During the past five years, Beausoleil has captured, studied and radio-collared more than 40 cougars and almost 30 of them are dead now.

Cougar numbers are down, said Treser. “I think it’s too low, now.”

Treser said cougars usually don’t bother people. His advice to the kids at the bus stop – if they see a cougar, “Look big, jump and holler and stick together.”

“There’s strength in numbers,” said Scott Fitkin, WDFW biologist who assisted Beausoleil with collecting data and fitting the cat with a radio collar. “And don’t run. Even my cat will chase me if I run.”

The assembled wildlife agents discussed the pros and cons of bear spray and noise devices. Pocket-sized air horns may scare off wildlife, but the professionals rely on pepper spray, preferably in a dose to “stop a charging grizzly bear.” One agent advised the group standing in freezing temperatures that morning keeping the can of bear spray warm, or it may not be effective.

The cat was not in great shape, especially after just eating, said Beausoleil. He used an ear punch to sample DNA and put tag number 120 in the cat’s ear, marking him for life. The number was also tattooed on his lip, and entered in the WDFW database. He measured 22 and a half inches tall and 83 inches long with a three-foot tail.

Beausoleil expected the cat to weigh between 115 and 120 pounds, but the scale read 112. He should be 130 to 135, said Beausoleil, who thought the cat had left his mom within the last six months.

During the examination, Fitkin kept a close check on the cat’s rate of respiration, a clue to how fast the cat was rebounding from the tranquilizing drugs it received from the dart in its rump.

Gauging his time against how the animal was rebounding, Beausoleil fitted and refitted the collar. It needed to be loose enough to allow the young male to grow, but tight enough to last up to two and a half years, the life of the battery and of the cotton spacer designed to rot and allow the collar to fall off. The radio-collar will send location signals to a satellite five times a day and directly to Beausoleil’s e-mail.

“He’ll grow. I’ll always lose the collar and jeopardize my data before jeopardizing a cat,” said Beausoleil. He followed up with a shot of penicillin and a drug to reverse the muscle relaxer in the mix of sedatives. It was past noon before the sedated cat was ready to be transported to the far reaches of his own territory.

“We released it in upper Twisp River. Since male cougars vigorously defend home ranges, in some cases fighting to the death, we didn’t want to put this cougar in another cougar’s potential home range,” said Beausoleil. Cougars killing other cougars is the No. 2 cause of death, after hunting, said Beausoleil.

“That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. There is a definite limit to population growth with cougars because males vigorously defend home ranges and kill each other when populations increase,” he said. “We haven’t seen much of this lately of course.” He said the age distribution of cougars is presently unstable, meaning there are not a lot of animals in the older age classes; the majority tend to be sub-adults and young adults.

He said when cougar age distributions are healthy, with a nice mix of older age classes, the home ranges tend to be larger and the overall population density smaller.

By mid-afternoon the two-year-old cougar had recovered and was released to prowl the territory he shares with the Methow Valley’s gray wolf pack. WDFW biologists will monitor the cat’s movements to avoid future livestock encounters and to learn more about cougars and cougar/wolf interactions.

Research has shown that the cougars will likely be impacted from wolves, said Beausoleil. “Since wolves travel in packs and cougars don’t, cougars will likely be somewhat displaced in areas that wolves occupy.”

Satellite locations on Monday (March 16) put Libby in the timber between Newby and Lookout ridges.

For more information on living with cougars see the WDFW website, wwww.wa.gov/wlm/living/cougars.htm.