Washington's first fatal cougar attack occurred earlier this summer on May 19th when two mountain bikers were attacked and one was killed near North Bend, 30 miles east of Seattle. The connections between the two incidents raise a lot of questions. Typically, people are instructed to stand their ground, make themselves appear loud and large in the instance of coming in contact with a cougar in the wild. During the attack in Washington, the survivor in the attack told authorities that they did everything they were supposed to do to scare the cat away during the attack. Alison Bober, Diana's sister, told the Oregonian it appeared she fought the animal that attacked her, saying "Although she died of her wounds, the wild animal didn't come back for her."
In the case of the Washington attack, the cougar stalked the two cyclists, then they attempted to scare it away, and it returned to attack them. "Something was wrong with this cougar," Sgt. Ryan Abbott, spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Office, told the Associated Press. Capt. Alan Myers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Washington Post, "Humans are not on the menu for Cougars normally. For it to attack two human beings in the manner that it did was incredibly abnormal. They do everything they can to avoid human contact." Myers said a preliminary exam of the animal showed it's age to be 3 to 4 years old, 100 pounds and slightly emaciated. A typical adult male cougar weighs between 140-180 pounds.
This abnormal attack occurred simply because the large cat was hungry. In addition to being hungry, it is either unafraid of humans or willing to take the risk of engaging with a human for a meal. Either way, officials made the decision to track down and euthanize the animal, which allowed them to collect information about what might have caused it's unusual behavior.
First responders from the fire and sheriff's departments found the victim in the cougar's den, with the cougar on top him. One of the deputies fired a shot, scaring the animal away. Officers with WDFW used hounds to track the cougar, which they found behind a tree no more than 80 feet away.
One of the big questions being posed with the cougar in Oregon is, "How many cougars will they find and kill before they get the culprit?" Well, it only took WDFW one try to find the culprit of their killer cat. Hopefully it will be a similar hunt for ODFW officials, although the timeline is a little further out, with Bober's body being found 2 days after she went missing, and another couple days passing with rains that might complicate hounds ability to follow a scent trail.
Another big question is "Is there any evidence that killing this cougar will prevent further human fatalities?" Well, the Washington cougar did not have anymore victims, and that is for certain. As far as this process being a "revenge killing," it's really more about the idea that cougars tend to learn behaviors and return to areas where they find they prey. For instance, if a cougar takes a chicken from a coop, it will continue to return to the coop until all the chickens are gone. As long as there are hikers in that area, they are in danger of becoming food for this cougar. The fact the body was dragged and left behind may only mean that she was left to die and the cat was coming back for it. Her body being removed from the trail and taken into rough terrain is still typical of large cat behavior being secretive about it's kills.
Many people wonder "Aren't cougar populations in decline?" Far from it. In fact, their populations have doubled since the mid 1990's.
An obvious problem is the expanse of the human population and the encroachment of habitat. "It's just animal doing what it does, she was in it's home!" Given that the woman was hiking in the wilderness, the trail is regularly used by hikers and cougars do not typically inhabit areas where people are. More and more human interactions with these animals continues to occur, but it's important to remember that humans are still part of the ecological equation. As long as this is true, the human element will affect wildlife management, and much of the reaction to this headhunt for a killer cat is an emotional response by people who are far removed from it.
Many of these far removed people are still questioning "Aren't these creatures being over-hunted?" Historically, a bounty was issued on cougars by settlers long before Oregon was even declared a state, and poisoning was the most popular method of removal. After some time of going unregulated, populations nearly went extinct. The fact they inhabit some of the most remote and hard to reach areas of the wilderness preserved their species until the state declared them a game animal and began regulating hunting practices in 1967. After the state stepped in, the population stabilized and continued on a steady rebound. Those slowly increasing but manageable populations were drastically changed in 1994 when measure 18 was passed, banning the use of hunting cougars (and bears) with hounds.
Since 1994, the population has nearly doubled in size in a short time frame, and many are skeptical that there are enough food sources to support such large populations, which could explain the drastic uptick in urban complaints involving problem cats. Zach Urness of the Statesman Journal reported in March of this year, (prior to these 2 fatalities) that:
"Complaints about cougars have tripled in the Willamette Valley since 2011. And the number of cougars killed due to human or livestock conflicts reached a record 70 animals last year in the Willamette Valley, Coast and Northern Cascades region, according to state records.
State officials say rising cougar numbers are pushing the animals into more populated areas, especially towns near forested lands such as Silverton, Dallas and Corvallis.
“When you see them showing up in urban areas, it’s likely that better habitat was occupied and they are trying to find a place that works for them,” said Derek Broman, carnivore coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife."If you look at the graph, you can see that not only were populations continuing to increase during the period of the late 80s and early 90s that hound hunting was still allowed, but the drastic rise in population that began once it was banned:
Another part of this equation is simply the lack of hunters in general. With fewer hunters, there's less hunting pressure on these populations. Many of the cougars taken by hunters are incidental kills in which they were not a primary target species. Even an increase in the number of cougars that are killed is not indicative of increased hunting pressure, but instead points to the larger probability of encountering a cougar given the increase in the population.
The difficult thing for people to understand is that they themselves create the human element regardless of whether or not they are a hunter. Increased populations of residents in the surrounding Portland and Seattle metro areas mean there will be more encroachment upon wilderness land. Leaving the decision of hunting tactics in the hands of these residents as voters rather than biologists and wildlife officials who understand wildlife management is a short-sighted approach that will continue to cause conflicts as the population of cougars reaches critical mass and branches out of it's habitat and into populated areas looking for food.