By Marcy Stamper
Close encounters between cougars and domestic animals — and their owners — have been reported near Twisp and Winthrop over the past few weeks, resulting in the killing by wildlife officers of two cougars that had attacked dogs. Although reports of cougars may seem to be on the rise, this is typical for this time of year, said Cal Treser, wildlife officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“It happens every year in December — in my 14 years here, it’s pretty predictable, as deer start moving down and cougars follow them,” said Treser.
Because young cougars are inexperienced hunters and not good at taking down larger prey, they get intro trouble more often, said Treser. “Sometimes the easiest food source is near civilization, such as dogs, cats and chickens,” he said.
That was the case at Donn Walvatne’s place on the Twisp-Carlton Road a few miles south of Twisp on Christmas night. Walvatne let his two Boston terriers out at around 9 p.m. After five minutes, one dog came right back to the porch but the other didn’t return, said Walvatne, who didn’t hear any cries. “It was a pretty traumatic night,” he said.
The next day WDFW wildlife officer Jason Day and a group of volunteers who help track cougars with dogs came to the house and shot the cougar after finding blood and the remains of the terrier, said Walvatne.
The cougar that killed Walvatne’s dog was about a year old and had been seen in the area with its mother for months, said Treser, who believes these are the animals that have been reported close to town and in the apple orchard near Hank’s Harvest Foods.
About two weeks earlier, Meridith Dufresne and her son Michael went out to their hot tub up Twisp River after dark. Their 45-pound dog, Tulip, followed. Meridith heard the dog yelp and started screaming, said her husband, Garry, who was in the house with their younger son, Alexander. After Meridith screamed, the cougar dropped the dog and took a swat at Meridith before running off, said Garry.
“I heard the dog squeal — it was actually pretty scary,” said Michael, age 10. “The cougar was holding the dog in its paws and lifting it about 6 inches off the ground.” The cougar then killed about half of the Dufresnes’ chickens.
Treser and the cougar trackers killed the cougar, a 2-year-old male, the next day. “It’s unfortunate. As cougar populations grow, cougars try to establish new territories. The territories cross with human habitat,” he said.
“Although she looks like Frankendog,” now that her stitches have been removed, Tulip seems fine, said Garry.
Another cougar has been reported near the south bridge in Winthrop, where it recently killed a barn cat and a deer, said Treser. That cougar has been observed since the summer, making the rounds near Sullivan Cemetery, Studhorse Mountain and the Chewuch River.
Coexisting with big cats
Wildlife managers often try to relocate cougars, but doing so in the winter is difficult, because there may not be any food in the new area and cougars will return to where they have found something to eat, said Treser. A cougar’s territory usually covers at least 10 miles. “We can’t move them far enough for them not to return,” he said.
Cougars are hunted in this region from September through March. This year at least three animals have been killed by big-game hunters, said Treser, who estimated there are about 50 cougars in the valley.
Increased awareness of cougars starts in December as people start seeing tracks in the snow. “Everyone has cougars on their minds and it’s a big problem — but they’ve been there all year,” said Treser. “Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean there’s not a cougar there.”
“We should keep our pets safe by keeping them in after darkness,” said Treser. “When you’re skiing, know there’s cougar there. If you see one, it doesn’t mean it’s coming after you or that you’re prey.”
For more on cougars in the Methow this winter, see Another cougar attack adds to high number of incidents, Cougars on the prowl, not increase, officials say, Cougar sightings, encounters continue to add up in the valley, Coming to terms with cougars, and Human, pet encounters with cougars increase each winter