By Ann McCreary
In behavior that wildlife officials say is unusual for the species, a cougar apparently attacked 14 lambs last week in a pasture near Carlton.
Ten of the lambs died in the attack, and two were so badly injured that they were euthanized.
“Cougar don’t usually do a multiple kill,” said Sgt. Dan Christensen, police supervisor for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in Okanogan County.
Christensen said an investigation by WDFW enforcement officers and wildlife biologists confirmed that the lambs were killed by a cougar as opposed to another predator, based on the way the animals were killed and the type of wounds they sustained. Investigators found one cougar track in the pasture, he said.
Fifteen lambs that belong to Amy and Mitchell Houser were being kept in a pasture at 18 Orchard Lane, just north of Carlton. The pasture is about one-quarter of a mile from the Housers’ home, and surrounded by secure mesh fencing about four feet high, Amy Houser said.
She said she and her husband checked on the lambs, which were about 5 months old, every other day. They had checked them on the afternoon of May 6 and when they checked again last Friday afternoon (May 8) they found 10 of the lambs had been killed, and four others were wounded.
“We pulled up and could see a body. It’s a three-acre field and there were bodies everywhere,” Houser said.
Two of the injured lambs had to be euthanized and the other two survived, she said. Only one lamb was untouched.
Houser said they called WDFW Friday afternoon to report the incident. Enforcement officer Justin Trautman and Ellen Heilhecker, a wildlife conflict specialist, responded, Christensen said.
“The method of kill and tooth punctures indicates that it’s a cougar,” Christensen said. “They found one track that appeared to be an adult cougar.”
Some of the carcasses also appeared to have been eaten by coyotes after they were killed, Christensen said.
“Usually when we have that many sheep killed it’s domestic dogs,” said Christensen. “We could have a young cat that was starving and finally found something to eat.” WDFW issued a depredation permit and called two local hound hunters to try to track and kill the cougar. Wildlife officials also set up a live cougar trap and a trail camera at the pasture, Christensen said. As of early this week there was no sign of the cougar, he said.
“We’re applying what tools we have. We’ll continue to check for a month,” Christensen said. “It will typically be seven to 14 days before they [cougars] come back.”
Houser said the surviving three lambs are now in a pasture by their home just north of Carlton, where the couple keeps about 42 sheep and lambs that they raise for food.
“We put them in a little barn at night and have set up sensor lights for motion,” she said.
She estimated the value of the lost lambs at $4,500-$6,000, and contacted WDFW to determine if they are eligible for payment under a state law that compensates livestock owners for losses resulting from wildlife depredation.
“I found out the only thing that has funding is the pot for wolf kills,” Houser said. “There’s no funding for bear or cougar kills.”
In addition to keeping the sheep at home where they can keep watch over them, the Housers are also keeping a sharp eye on their three children — ages 1, 2 ½, and 11.
“We drive the 11-year-old to the bus stop now, and wait with her,” Houser said.