WDWF reports multiple incidents in the valley this winter
Two young cougars were captured, and another was killed by state wildlife officers on March 6 after they killed two small goats at a residence near Benson Creek on Highway 153.
The three cubs, about 30 pounds and less than 5 months old, may have been the offspring of a female cougar that was euthanized 10 days earlier by wildlife officers after she was found with a badly injured leg.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) police are investigating the cause of the injuries to the female cougar, because it appears she may have been illegally caught in a leg-hold trap, said officer Jason Day.
The injured, emaciated female cougar was spotted inside a barn on the Twisp-Carlton Road on Feb. 24, and the property owner called WDFW. “She was laid up in somebody’s barn. One of her hind legs was badly damaged,” Day said.
“It’s possible she got run over by a car or caught up in something. But it really looks like she got caught in a trap, was stuck in it for a while, got loose and was on the verge of starving to death,” Day said. After shooting the cougar, WDFW officers found that the bones in her paw were broken and skin above the paw was torn. It appeared the cougar had been licking and biting the bottom of its foot to pull it free, he said.
Since December, residents have reported sightings of a cougar with three cubs in the vicinity of the beaver ponds on the Twisp-Carlton Road, Day said. That area is across the river, but not far from where the three cubs were found last week after the goats were killed.
Day responded with two other WDFW officers to the report of the goat depredation on Highway 153. The goat owner had shot at one of the cougars, which was found inside a loafing shed and was killed by the officers. “I didn’t realize how small it was until I walked up to it,” Day said. Shortly after, the wildlife officers realized there were two more young cougars in a tree right next to the highway.
“Once I realized there were two more, things started coming together,” Day said. He realized that the three young cougars were probably the same cubs that local residents have seen traveling with their mother all winter, and that the mother was probably the injured cat that was euthanized 10 days previously. “Since then, those cubs have not been seen with an adult,” Day said.
Day was able to dart the treed cubs with an immobilizing drug. The cougars were not very high in a ponderosa pine, and slipped out of the tree and landed uninjured in a snowbank, Day said. The cougars were placed in a cougar trap with “a deer leg to chew on.” Day took them on Friday (March 8) to Rich Beausoleil, WDFW cougar and bear specialist, in Wenatchee.
Finding a home
Beausoleil was making arrangements to have the cubs placed in a zoo or wildlife sanctuary, Day said. WDFW finds homes for orphaned wildlife in facilities approved by the American Zoological Society. “In the last 13 years we have homed about 70 cougar cubs from Washington,” Day said.
The cougars were too young to fend on their own, but young enough to be accepted in a zoo or sanctuary. Adult cougars can’t be placed, he said.
“The cubs couldn’t be released back into the wild. They were not even at the point where mama was teaching them to hunt,” Day said. The 30-pound cubs would probably have stayed with their mother for at least another year.
“Most of the time they are stashed at a location and she brings them to the food,” Day said. Cubs like those caught last week might survive for a while by eating house cats, dogs or even skunks. But their chances of long-term survival are slim, Day said.
“They need the full time with their mother. When they leave mama’s care, the mortality rate is really high for young cougars,” even those that have stayed the normal amount of time with their mother, Day said. “We know that cougars are a self-regulating population, very territorial, and need to find an area that is not claimed by another cougar.” Male cougars will kill other cougars that infringe on their territory.
Day took photos of the female cougar that he euthanized, and has been showing them to residents as part of his investigation into her injuries. “My gut feeling is somebody set a trap. There are a lot of rusty old leg-hold traps hanging in people’s barns,” Day said.
Use of leg-hold traps or snares is illegal for any species. Anyone using them could be charged with “unlawful use of a body-gripping trap.”
The apparent capture and injury of the mother cougar “led to a cascade of events that is more than just sad,” Day said. “It led to orphaned cubs killing goats.”
He encouraged anyone with information about the incident or with wildlife related questions to contact him on his work cell phone, (509) 631-0903.
There have been a few other incidents involving cougars in the Methow Valley this winter, but “no more than usual,” Day said. On Jan. 8, two sheep were killed on the West Chewuch Road. A cougar was tracked and treed, and shot by WDFW officers.
On the same day, WDFW received a report of a cougar in a barn, also on the West Chewuch Road. The animal was skinny and sick, and was euthanized, Day said.
On Feb. 11, WDFW dealt with three cougar incidents. A sheep on a farm north of Winthrop was killed. An adult female cougar was tracked to the Big Valley area and was killed.
The agency also received a report of a cougar attacking a dog just outside the Twisp town limits. The dog owner shot and injured the cougar, and then tracked it down and killed it.
Day and other officers also responded to a report of an adult female in a hay barn on the East Chewuch Road. Day said he recognized the animal, which wore a collar that had been placed on her by researchers.
“She was really old, about 12 years,” Day said. He wasn’t sure at first if the cougar was healthy. He attempted to immobilize her by shooting her with a dart, but it deflected when it struck her. “The cat jumped up; it was obvious that she was in wonderful condition. She had parts of deer in the hay barn.”
Researchers conducting a multi-year study of predator/prey interactions in the Methow Valley also captured and collared a cougar in Mazama, in the vicinity of the Edelweiss residential development, Day said.
When attacks on livestock or pets are confirmed by catching a cougar in the act or tracking it, WDFW policy is to kill the animal, Day said. Cougars can’t be successfully relocated. “They all go home,” he said. “Almost every time if there’s a depredation where pets or livestock have been killed, the cougar will be lethally removed.”
People can report emergencies involving wildlife to the Washington State Patrol, at (509) 422-3800, Day said.