No depredations reported, no cats killed in the Methow Valley
By Ann McCreary
In contrast to last winter with its string of cougar attacks on pets and livestock, this winter has been a quiet one so far on the cougar front.
“The Methow Valley has had a few sightings. But we have not had the depredation” of last winter, said Sgt. Dan Christensen, supervisor of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) enforcement for Okanogan County.
Cougars are a common part of the landscape in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, but by most accounts last winter was unusual in the number of cougar attacks on dogs, cats, goats, sheep, chickens and calves.
By the end of January last year, WDFW officials had tracked and shot four cougars after attacks on pets and livestock, and a fifth cougar was tracked and treed by WDFW officers after an attack and subsequently shot by a hunter with a cougar tag. Cougar sightings and encounters were almost a weekly event throughout January and February.
About a dozen cougars were killed by WDFW officials or by hunters in the Methow Valley by the time winter was over. The unusual number of cougar incidents prompted WDFW to issue special permits last February allowing hunters to use hounds to track cougars under a cougar removal program.
By contrast, no cougar depredations have been reported and no cougars have been killed so far this winter in the valley, Christensen said.
Wildlife officials and residents suggested theories for last year’s high volume of cougar incidents. Among the theories was the low snow accumulation during most of last winter, which meant deer — the primary prey of cougars — were more widely dispersed around the valley. That meant cougars were also widely dispersed and took advantage of preying on pets and livestock as well as deer.
Christensen said the cougar population is likely reduced this year as a result of the cougars killed last year by WDFW officers and hunters. Last summer’s Carlton Complex Fire also killed an unknown number of cougars, he said.
“We obviously lost quite a few cougars in the fire. I believe we killed three burned cougars that were walking on their elbows [after their paws were burned]. Unlike Cinder the bear, that people want to rescue,” the big cats couldn’t be saved, he said.
The wildfire also destroyed a large part of the mule deer winter range, and so the deer are gathering in different areas than they normally do and the cougars are following them, Christensen said.
Deer doing OK
A large number of deer have gathered in fruit orchards where fences were burned in the fire, mostly in the Brewster area, and cougars have been seen in the vicinity, Christensen said. Unprotected hay bales in fields also attract deer and cougars.
“When you congregate prey you congregate predators,” Christensen said.
Because this winter has been relatively mild, “the deer seem to be doing pretty well,” said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist for WDFW. “Their body condition seems pretty good and they are pretty well distributed.”
Because of the loss of winter range in the fire, biologists were prepared to provide supplemental feed with pellets for deer if the herd was at risk of starving or if deer were damaging orchards or property. “There are places where there isn’t a lot of natural food left,” Fitkin said.
So far, however, supplemental deer feeding has only been needed in areas between Pateros and Brewster where orchards that lost fencing in the fires are attracting deer, Fitkin said.
“The supplemental feeding … is to encourage deer to come out of the orchard and give them something else to feed on besides orchard trees,” he said.