Recent attacks are evidence of big cats
doing what comes naturally
By Ann McCreary
The recent series of cougar attacks on domestic animals may have people wondering if there are more cougars than usual in the Methow Valley. Not so, says a wildlife researcher who has studied cougars here for more than a decade.
While there may be an unusual concentration of cougar incidents in recent weeks, the big cats are simply doing what comes naturally and taking advantage of opportunities for an easy meal courtesy of humans, according to Rich Beausoleil, cougar and bear specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Wildlife officials killed another cougar last Friday (Jan. 10) — the fourth in five weeks — after the cat killed a sheep at a home off East Chewuch Road near Winthrop.
“The numbers of sightings has been really high this year,” said Cal Treser, wildlife officer for the WDFW. “Last week I had nine cougar calls.”
“Every now and then we’ll see a cycle like this where [incidents] are all clumped together,” said Beausoleil. “We’re never going to put it all together and explain why these things happen. We know January is the month where all this increases. I don’t want people to jump to this notion that the cougar population is up.”
Beausoleil has 11 years of research to back his statement about cougar populations. Last year he published a scientific paper that found the cougar population controls itself naturally, because they are extremely territorial animals.
Researchers found that adult cougars, especially males, have a natural drive to establish and defend territory, and will kill any other cougar that enters it. This creates a stable density in cougar populations that researchers found applies to cougars everywhere.
The recent problems associated with cougars killing sheep, goats, chickens and dogs are predictable, and will continue unless people take steps to protect their animals, Beausoleil said.
“The chickens running around the enclosure — that’s just bon bons on the landscape. You might as well have an ‘Eat at Joe’s’ sign,” Beausoleil said.
“It’s all about prevention,” he said. “The word I like to get out is you need to look around your property and say, how do I prevent a problem from happening before it happens? Don’t go and blame those ‘nuisance animals.’ Stop and say, ‘Why did this happen?’”
‘Game of calories’
For large carnivores, survival “is a game of calories,” Beausoleil said. Taking down a deer is hard and dangerous work and cougars are often injured in the process. “It’s a tough life out there and when you see something like a goat that just sits there and looks at you … you take it while you’ve got it,” he said.
Putting animals inside a barn or in a secure enclosure at night is a key step in preventing problems, Beausoleil said. “Goats are the No. 1 at-risk animal, sheep are second, third are chickens,” he said.
“This is the Methow Valley,” said Beausoleil. “Your backyard turns into wilderness. You need to be a part of that landscape and take the steps to live harmoniously with the critters that are around.”
Skip Smith lost two goats in recent weeks to a cougar that entered a livestock enclosure at his ranch on Highway 20 outside Winthrop. The 74-pound female cougar that killed the goats was tracked and shot last week.
After the second attack, Smith said he created a more secure pen to hold his sheep and goats at night. He increased the height of the fence to 8 feet and added three strands of electric wire around the top.
“The electric fence might help. If they jump up and touch that, it’s pretty hot,” Smith said.
Suggestions on ways to live with wildlife are available on the WDFW website, the Mountain Lion Foundation website, and the Western Wildlife Outreach website, Beausoleil said.
“These precautions cost money, and I know it can be a burden on people. I guess it comes down to values and the value you put on the natural world,” he said. “Cougars are the personification of wilderness and an unbelievable carnivore.”
Killing cougars that attack domestic animals “is a temporary solution,” said Beausoleil. His research shows that when a cougar dies or is removed from his territory, other cougars will move in until one establishes it as its own.
“The gun is just a Band-aid. As soon as one territory opens there is another cougar right behind it,” Beausoleil said.
Killing cougars that attack livestock that aren’t adequately protected “gets frustrating to me because … it’s a needless kill and such an easy thing to prevent,” Beausoleil said.
January and July — “the worst days of winter and worst days of summer” — are predictable periods of problems with carnivores, Beausoleil said. This winter of low snow may have an added dimension, because deer are more widely scattered, rather than confined to more traditional winter ranges, and cougars may be more widely dispersed as a result.
The cougar that attacked the sheep last week was a 130-pound male in good health. “He hadn’t missed a meal.” Treser said.
“The cougar was living on the edge of the Methow Wildlife Area with plenty of mule deer for food. There’s no reason he should have taken a sheep. Maybe [he did] because the kill was easy as the sheep were confined in a corral,” Treser said.
Trackers with dogs were brought in and followed the cougar for five hours, until he was treed near the Methow River and shot.
“He was a beautiful cat,” Treser said.
Once a cougar has attacked livestock or pets in winter, the policy is to kill it because the cougar is likely to repeat the attacks. In other seasons, Treser said, he will often capture a cougar following an attack on livestock and relocate it. But in winter, snow and weather make it too difficult to relocate cougars to remote areas, he said.
The relocating doesn’t always work, Treser said. Late last summer a cougar killed a goat near Buzzard Lake, on the Okanogan side of Loup Loup Pass. Treser captured the cat, placed an ear tag on it, and released it above Ross Lake on the east side of the North Cascades.
“Eighteen days later he came back and killed a goat in the same pasture,” Treser said.
Cougars that turn to livestock and pets as prey are often unhealthy or injured, Treser said. “As they’re taking down large animals they break teeth, injure their feet, break claws off. It gets more difficult to take down a deer,” so they look for easier prey, he said.
The four cougars killed this year because of predation on domestic animals have all been healthy, Treser said.
For more on cougars in the Methow this winter, see Another cougar attack adds to high number of incidents, Cougar sightings, encounters continue to add up in the valley, Coming to terms with cougars, and Human, pet encounters with cougars increase each winter.