TWISP, Okanogan County — In black and white, the facts seem rather fantastic. More than a dozen cougars have been killed in the Methow Valley this winter. Seven were killed at the hands of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, in response to pets and livestock that were killed or mauled. Hunters took the rest, some after attacks.
An 11-year-old Twisp girl shot one cougar after it followed her brother to the door of their home. Another was tracked down after it fought with the same dog that last year survived a wolf attack.
People also reported seeing a cougar crossing the Highway 20 bridge in Twisp and walking through an orchard behind this small town’s grocery store.
To anyone observing, it may seem like the population of cougars in the Methow Valley has exploded.
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That’s sparked a debate among residents. Some contend that people have moved into the cougar’s territory, and need to learn to live with them. They’re upset that so many cougars were killed this winter.
Others believe that when voters passed an initiative in 1996 outlawing hunting the big cats with hounds, an important tool for controlling them was removed. A series of temporary laws since then has allowed the limited use of hounds, but, some say, not enough to keep the mountain lions at bay.
Officials say the reasons for this winter’s problems are not completely known. All agree the unusual weather likely played a role.
But there were other factors, said Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. With some preventive efforts, many of the pet and livestock deaths could have been prevented, he said.
The situation will eventually stabilize, he said. But that will take time, and a real effort by people in the Methow Valley to prevent a perpetuation of cougar-human interactions.
Statewide, Fish and Wildlife officers receive hundreds of unconfirmed reports every year from people who think they’ve seen a cougar, or who think their pets or livestock were attacked by one. Human encounters are unusual, and attacks on people are extremely rare.
There’s only one confirmed death by a cougar in Washington’s history — a 14-year-old boy in Okanogan County, who was sent to retrieve a team of horses from a neighboring ranch in December 1924.
Wildlife Sgt. Dan Christensen, in charge of the agency’s enforcement officers in Okanogan County, said it’s his goal to keep it that way.
Christensen said there’s been a steady increase in the number of complaints over the last few years. This winter, the number of calls countywide actually dropped a bit. But, he said, “In the Methow, it’s just blown up.”
Both Beausoleil and Christensen agree the unusual winter weather played a role.
Clear into February, there was almost no snow, so instead of hanging out in a herd on their winter range, deer — a cougar’s main diet — were scattered across the valley.
Adult male cougars always defend a territory, often resulting in one cougar killing another. This acts to control their own population, Beausoleil said. But with the deer spread out, so were the cougars.
“It was a challenge to find food, and that resulted in a stressful situation for a lot of cougars,” Beausoleil said. Then in February, some 4 feet of snow fell in two weeks, making the situation even worse.
Christensen said some of the increase in calls was a typical response to hearing about a problem cougar. “We start getting hysteria. Somebody sees a cougar running across the mountainside, and they call,” he said.
But the number of attacks by cougars on pets and livestock was clearly unusual. They started in mid-December and the last was in early March, when officials tracked and killed a cougar that killed a German shepherd under its owners’ porch outside of Twisp.
So far this winter, three dogs have been maimed, and the German Shepherd, two goats, a calf, a sheep, a duck and untracked numbers of chickens and house cats were killed by cougars.
Christensen said it’s his job to use whatever tools he thinks are necessary to prevent further encounters.
Those tools include hazing — or chasing after the cougar to try to persuade it not to visit homes and ranches.
When multiple complaints are received, the agency issues special hunting permits. And when officers think a cougar poses a risk of continued attacks on domestic animals, they call for help from local hound hunters to track down and kill the cat.
“Once we have death of a domestic animal, we have the discretion to kill it,” Christensen said. That decision isn’t always popular. But, “I don’t want a kid hurt. I really don’t. And that’s just what it comes down to. I’ve got to make sure my public’s safe.”
Part of what made this winter unusual, too, was having several cougars killed in one location, on the outskirts of Twisp. Five cougars were killed in the Lookout Mountain area, four of them on the same property.
“When you have one family that kills four cougar, or maybe five on one place, I don’t have an explanation for it,” Christensen said.
That “place” is actually two homes on Lookout Mountain Road belonging to Bill and Tom White, a father and son who raise cattle and who pleaded guilty in federal court two years ago of killing or conspiring to kill endangered wolves. Wildlife officials said there was nothing illegal about the cougars killed there this year.
Wildlife officers responded to the Whites’ in early February, when a cougar killed one of their calves. That cougar was tracked and killed. So was another cougar that injured a dog on another part of Lookout Mountain in March.
Three of the cougars were killed by Tom White’s children, who all had hunting tags to shoot a cougar. Among them, 11-year-old Shelby White, who — under her father’s supervision — shot a starving cat about 10 feet from their door.
Beausoleil said five cougars in one small area may seem like a lot. But data from the animals killed suggest this was two family units — one adult male, two moms and their kittens, he said. Cougars do all of their growing in the first year, he said, so a 10- to 12-month-old kitten still hanging with its mother is the same size as she is.
“We’re having a winter that we haven’t seen in 30 years in the Methow,” Beausoleil said, adding, “When you have that kind of perfect storm situation in an area where hobby farms and raising livestock are popular, it takes a community to prevent negative interactions.”
As lead researcher in a 10-year study that tracked more than 100 cougars in the Methow, Beausoleil found that killing off older males is actually counter productive. When hunted at lower rates, cougars regulate their population naturally because they are highly territorial, he said.
“Younger cougars don’t have the ability to defend their home ranges, so instead of having two and three adults, you’re going to have four to five sub-adults, until one gets old enough to defend its home range,” he said.
But because they aren’t territorial and they overlap each other’s ranges, sightings — not necessarily problems — tend to increase, giving people the misconception that the cougar population is increasing.