WDFW exploring placement options
Three young cougars that were captured last week in Winthrop are being cared for in Wenatchee while state wildlife officials work to arrange their transfer to an accredited zoo or wildlife refuge.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) law enforcement officers trapped the cougar kittens (also called cubs) last week after receiving reports of cougars seen near the River’s Edge Resort at the end of Riverside Avenue. The kittens had taken shelter under the deck of a nearby house.
The kittens, two males and one female, were estimated to be between 4 and 6 months old, and weighed 30-35 pounds. At that age, they are not able to fend for themselves if released in the wild, said Jason Day, a WDFW law enforcement officer.
“With these young cougars there is no way to raise them and return them to the wild. There is no way to teach them to hunt. Mama has to do that,” Day said this week. “We facilitate their transfer to volunteer groups that facilitate the re-homing of these animals, with the stipulation that they can only go to an accredited facility.”
Catching the kittens turned out to be a challenge, Day said. Two traps, baited with roadkill deer meat, were set up next to the house last Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 22) around 3 p.m. Electronic transmitters indicated one trap closed at 4:50 p.m., and the other trap was tripped at 7:54 p.m.
The traps can be opened at the back to enable wildlife officials to transfer animals from one trap to another. The two captured kittens were placed in one trap on Thursday morning to help entice the third kitten into the empty baited trap.
The third kitten was caught “in the wee hours” of Friday morning, Day said. WDFW officers moved the third kitten into the trap with its siblings, but in the process a weld on the wire trap broke and the door popped open, and two of the kittens escaped and ran back under the deck.
Officers moved the remaining kitten into a larger trap at the site, and reset the two traps. They recaptured one kitten, who managed to trip both traps, on Friday night. The other kitten was recaptured on Saturday night, Day said. “It can never go perfect,” he observed.
Off to Wenatchee
On Sunday, the kittens were moved into a large, enclosed culvert-style trap for the trip to WDFW offices in Wenatchee, where Rich Beausoleil, the agency’s cougar and bear specialist, will work to place them in a facility that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“We only send them to places that have the best possible facilities,” Day said. For example, he said, two orphaned cougar kittens that were captured last year near Benson Creek went to Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minnesota. They haven’t gone on display yet, because the zoo is building a new addition for the two cougars and two orphaned brown bears, he said.
It is not clear why the three juvenile cougars were on their own, although officials say it is possible that a female cougar that was killed about two weeks earlier by WDFW officers in downtown Winthrop could have been their mother.
“I tend not to believe in coincidences. We killed a female right there and all of a sudden we have these kittens running around town,” Day said.
In the case of the adult female, WDFW had been called after people reported seeing her during the daytime in the downtown area. Day and Officer Justin Trautman spotted the cougar around noon near the River’s Edge Motel, and saw her enter an irrigation culvert near the river. “We could see she had a collar. We wanted to trap her in the culvert,” Day said.
Trautman blocked off one end of the culvert with wood while Day stood at the other end to prevent her from escaping, but the cougar bolted out of the culvert past Day. “She ran right past me and headed south on Riverside Avenue and cut across toward the Wine Shed,” Day said. The officers followed and found her hiding in the far recesses of a deck behind the Wine Shed building.
The officers could only see her face and chest. They determined they were unable to safely shoot her with a dart to immobilize her. “From the enforcement standpoint, we deal with public safety. The only way to safely remove her was lethally,” Day said. “At the end of the day, public safety trumps the preservation of that particular individual.”
Cougars, he noted, are not a protected species. Day said only a few people in town were aware of the incident as it was happening.
Two years of tracking
The female, estimated to be about 6 years old, was first collared near the Forest Service headquarters about two years ago as part of an ongoing predator-prey research project being conducted by the University of Washington in the Methow Valley. Lauren Satterfield, a Ph.D. candidate working on the UW research project, conducted a necropsy on the cougar and found she was healthy and not pregnant or lactating, and had recently fed on a deer.
Data collected by the GPS collar showed that the cougar had been in the Manning Park area of British Columbia only two or three days before she was found in Winthrop, Satterfield said. GPS records show the cougar has traveled to Canada and spent the summer there each year since she was collared. “She uses the Chewuch [drainage] all winter,” Satterfield said. Satterfield took DNA samples of the female and the kittens, which will show if the kittens were her offspring.
Day said citizens sometimes ask why cougars can’t be trapped and relocated, but the distances traveled by this female cougar illustrate why that is rarely successful. A few years ago a cougar that killed a sheep near Buzzard Lake — about 5 miles northwest of Okanogan — was captured and tagged by WDFW, transported over the North Cascades Highway, and released near Ross Lake. Within a couple of weeks it had returned to kill another sheep, Day said.
WDFW has had reports of cougars sighted in different parts of the valley this winter, including Heckendorn, where trail cameras have captured pictures of a small cougar. Day said one resident of the neighborhood reported earlier this month that when she started her car in a carport, a cougar jumped over the hood. Sightings or signs of cougars have also been reported in Edelweiss, Lost River and Mazama, he said.
One way residents can make their properties less welcoming to cougars or other wildlife is to seal off the area beneath decks and porches with wood or screens so that they don’t provide hiding places, Day said. “There’s a cost in time and effort, but if you want to be more wildlife-friendly, remove that opportunity,” he advised.
People who want to report an incident with cougars or other wildlife can do so by calling Washington State Patrol dispatch at (509) 422-3800, or WDFW dispatch at (360) 902-2600.