Cat retreats after Burgar Street encounter
Barry Stromberger was rummaging around in a woodshed next to his Burgar Street home Sunday afternoon (Nov. 29), when he heard a sudden loud commotion coming from the back of the shed. He whirled around and found himself arm’s length from a large cougar.
“I saw this head, and looked her right in the face. I could have reached out and touched her,” Stromberger said. He made a fast exit from the woodshed, grabbing his small dachshund, and called to report the cougar to the proper authorities.
The cougar was in a back corner of the shed when Stromberger had entered, and he didn’t notice it. He had picked up a cardboard box and banged on it to knock the dirt off, when he heard noises behind him as the cougar leaped up and knocked over a plastic basket. “When I banged the box, I might have woken her up,” he said.
The cougar remained in the shed after Stromberger left, and was curled up in a corner when Jason Day, an enforcement officer with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), arrived about half an hour later, around 3 p.m.
Day peered into the shed at the cat, but it was hunkered down in the corner behind stacks of wood and difficult to see. He called his supervisor to discuss a plan to deal with the cougar. The situation was complicated because the cat was in one of Twisp’s most populated residential neighborhoods. In the meantime, officers arrived from the Twisp police department and Okanogan County sheriff’s department to assist if needed.
After talking with his supervisor, Day said, “we decided to check the health of this thing and figure out why it’s in the woodshed. It was hard to see if she was emaciated, injured, or had a couple of cubs behind her. I flicked a wood chip in there to get her to stand up.”
It worked. The cat jumped to her feet, growling. “She got really upset,” Day said. The cat walked cautiously out of the shed and then trotted away into the neighborhood at about 3:30 p.m.
“She went through a neighbor’s back yard, and started to head up Twisp River. She ran back to a residence on Burgar Street and hid in a carport. I followed the tracks and they looped back. The cougar ran right out of a carport in front of us,” Day said.
Day followed the cougar’s tracks as they paralleled Ainsworth Avenue, then crossed Highway 20 and went toward the river, then turned back toward the highway before Day lost them.
Day called a researcher involved in the University of Washington project that collared the cougar, to learn more about the animal. The researcher told him that data from the GPS collar showed the cat to be a female that spent the summers in the Pasayten Wilderness and winters in the Methow Valley in a drainage east of the Methow River.
She was captured and collared about three years ago for the UW research project, which is studying the interaction of wolves and cougars. Day said satellite signals downloaded every 16 hours from her collar showed she traveled from the Pasayten Wilderness to the valley in late November, following the Methow River, then the Twisp River, before the data placed her in Twisp around Nov. 27 or 28.
The cougar has contributed to research for a long time, Day said. Before the Washington Predator-Prey Project collared her in 2018, she had been collared in 2008 and again in 2012 for a study of cougar behavior conducted by WDFW biologist Rich Beausoleil.
That means the cougar is at least 12, which is an advanced age for a cougar in the wild. She appeared to be “a confident older female (who) has seen it all. She’s made it many years without getting into trouble,” Day said.
The cougar’s collar also emits a radio signal, and using telemetry, the researcher attempted to locate the cougar on Monday morning, Day said. It appeared the cat might still be in the area, but the signal was not clear enough to provide a location.
If the cougar remains in the residential area, it might be because she has killed a deer nearby, Day said. She probably sought out the woodshed because “it’s that time of year that they’re looking for warm, dry places to spend the day,” he said.
Hopefully, the cougar will move on to her usual winter territory across the Methow River, because options for dealing with cougars in residential areas are limited, Day said. “Ultimately, we’re lethally removing most of these animals now,” he said. If the cougar hadn’t suddenly left the woodshed, she probably would have been shot, he said.
“A lot of people call [to report cougar sightings], assuming we’re going to show up with cages and nets and darts and we’re going to haul the cougar off and dump it in a national park,” Day said. “But what you really get is me on a weekend. We don’t have the personnel and equipment and capacity to show up and dart it and take it away.”
Trying to immobilize a cougar with a dart gun is an imprecise and unpredictable undertaking, he said. Often the animal is panicked after being hit by a dart and runs away before the immobilizing drugs take effect. A freaked-out cougar running through a residential area is not a good option, he said.
“Imagine a half-conscious cat running into someone’s yard and the family dog decides to defend its territory,” Day said. “In a town, on city lots, with a cougar in a woodshed and neighbors staring out the window… any of the solutions that we could propose have risks and conflicts built into them.”
Wildlife officers responding to calls have to evaluate “what we can do to keep the public safe and wildlife protected and preserved,” Day said. “Sometimes lethal removal, when you weigh all these factors, is the safest, simplest, and most straightforward way to resolve the conflict.”