Cougar sightings on the rise

A cougar spotted at The Oregon Garden in Silverton was later killed by wildlife officials.

Six cougars have been killed due to threats to public safety so far this year, including a 2-year-old male cougar who wandered into a room in a hotel complex in The Dalles this week and a cougar trapped and killed in Silverton over the weekend.

The sightings may be tied to the predator’s population growth. There are more than 6,000 cougars in Oregon today, a major rebound from a low of 200 animals in the late 1960s.

Prompted by a recent increase in the state’s coastal cougar population, wildlife biologists in the Alsea management area near Newport are attempting to capture and collar 10 local big cats. They have collars on six cougars so far and hope to gather more information this year about where and how far the animals roam, said Jason Kirchner, the state wildlife biologist leading the effort.

With the cougars in Silverton and The Dalles, though, “one of the bigger questions is how are we going to address this?” said Derek Broman, carnivore-furbearer coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Each situation is different, Broman said, and the tolerance for cougar sightings and the thresholds for safety vary in each community. When wildlife officials are involved in capturing or killing a cougar, the hope is to be consistent across the state. Despite the six cougar killings this year, Broman noted the state has many more reports of cougar sightings and interactions that didn’t end with a dead cougar.

Wildlife biologist Jeremy Thompson said the behavior of the cougar in The Dalles was “extremely odd.” The animal didn’t appear to be afraid of people or at all wary of its increasingly urban environment as it wandered into the downtown business district and the hotel.

“A lot of the time (decisions to euthanize) have to be made pretty quickly,” Broman said. He added, “No one likes to have to remove cougars lethally.”

Oregon’s cougar management plan, updated last year, noted an increase in the number of sightings and conflicts with cougars in urban areas and specifically in the coastal management zone, a large area that includes the northern section of the Cascade Mountain Range, the Portland, Salem and Eugene metroplexes and the rural North Coast.

With its mix of urban and rural areas, rough terrain and relatively limited prey, the coastal zone was long thought to be poor habitat for cougars and the last place to expect a population boom.

The first two cougars the Alsea biologists collared were a mother-son pair.

A trapper had called the district office to report that a foot-hold trap he had set for bobcat and coyotes had snagged a young cougar instead. The district staff sensed a unique opportunity.

They went out, darted the 8- to 10-month old male cougar, put a collar on him and released him. They gave him a week to rest up and then went back out to get mom, using information transmitted from his collar.

“He’s going to separate from mom here in six to eight months and as soon as he does that, we’re going to try to capture him again and adjust his collar because he’s going to be growing quick,” Kirchner said. “It’ll be interesting to see how far he goes.”

The young cougar will face some competition for territory. There are dominant males in that area he will have to contend with, Kirchner said.

So far, the older males the district collared have a range of around 50 square miles — relatively smaller than research from colleagues in Eastern Oregon. One male’s range is at 80 square miles, which compares to what researchers have seen in Eastern Oregon. A female cougar’s range has been recorded at closer to 15 square miles. It’s too early to say if these are constant ranges, or only seasonal.