Celeste Hankins for Lake Chelan Magazine
LIVING IN COUGAR COUNTRY:
Can research make us better neighbors?
“When buying a home, be aware of cougar territory as you would potential wildfire”
Phil Green, who lives on the south shore of Lake Chelan, heard it over the television, a soft sound, like something rubbing against his door. Curious, he stood to investigate, took a few steps, then stopped, abruptly, at the sight of a cougar kitten staring at him from outside, sitting on its tawny-colored haunches, nose pressed against the glass. Green flipped on the light. The cougar didn’t budge. Stepping closer, Green snapped a photo with his phone, then backed up and ran yelling toward the cat, waving his arms over his head. Startled, the cougar vaulted into the cold, dark night.
While Green had recently found paw prints in the heavy snow near his home on the south shore of Lake Chelan in north-central Washington, and motion-sensor cameras across the valley had caught several cougar prowls in the last several months, this was his first face-to-face encounter.
The next day, the nearby Lake Chelan Yacht Club posted Green’s photo of the cougar kitten on its Facebook page. Hundreds of comments poured into the feed. Mixed with the jokes, “Here kitty, kitty,” and exclamations, “Wow, that’s one big cat,” many Facebook users emphatically called for the return of hound hunting, which Washington residents voted to ban statewide in 1996 under initiative I-655. Critics of the ban say it’s allowed cougar population to boom, threatening people, pets and livestock.
More than 20 years of cougar research by the State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), however, challenges those claims. Biologists who have conducted numerous studies in the state point to data that shows no evidence of an explosion in cougar population. Instead, said biologist Rich Beausoleil, a statewide WDFW cougar, and bear expert who lives in Wenatchee, the current cougar harvest is two to three times larger since the state outlawed hound hunting more than 20 years ago and then expanded the hunting season from 65 to 242 days. Unlike the state’s human population, which has almost doubled since 1980, data shows the Washington cougar population remains surprisingly stable.
But why, then, so many cougar photos and videos flashing across Lake Chelan’s social media feeds? Motion-sensor cameras certainly play a role, and they may capture multiple images of the same cat, which can travel up to 50 miles a day. Family groups, like the one currently living on the South Shore of Lake Chelan, may also give the impression of a higher population, mainly because juvenile males are often larger than the mother cougar once they reach 11 months of age. Research also points to an unexpected correlation between increased hunting and cougar conflict.
But first, insists Beausoleil, you can’t ignore the role humans play in the problem. The biologist, his French surname meaning “beautiful sun,” is a strong, wiry man with dark, short-cropped hair. He’s spent more than 20 years researching cougars in Washington state and has watched at least 17 cougar legislation bills pass through Olympia as cougar management became more and more political. Intense and often frustrated about misinformation circulating about cougars, Beausoleil laments poor judgment by some homeowners. “Attracting deer to your property by intentionally or unintentionally feeding them, not having proper protective enclosures, or leaving goats, chickens or other animals outside an enclosed structure,” he said, “are like ringing a dinner bell in cougar territory.”
Leaving domestic animals outside or feeding wild deer invites the big cats to venture closer to humans, he continued. “Cougar conflict is a people problem. When we reward and incentivize wild animals, it starts a vicious cycle. A cougar is going to act like a cougar. A cat is a cat is a cat.”
“A cat is a cat is a cat.”
The Lake Chelan valley, like most of Washington state, is cougar country. About 2,300 independent-age cougars, also called mountain lions, live in the state, which prompted extensive research by the WDFW and partnering universities. By collaring and tracking cougars, scientists discovered a critical factor at play in increased cougar sightings.
Temporary surges in cougar populations can occur when more liberal hunting laws create chaos in the animal’s normally self-regulating social structure. In other words, mature male cougars maintain order and may reduce densities. When an older male dies or is killed by hunters, younger male cats may enter the system and upset the territorial balance. Because they are smaller and don’t know how to hunt larger prey, they have to kill smaller prey, which can include domestic goats and sheep, increasing conflict between cougars and humans.
Cougar sightings in Manson
Last January in Manson, near the casino on the north shore of Lake Chelan, Juliana Ortiz found cougar tracks in the snow around her home. She carefully followed the tracks to decipher the events of the cougar’s nighttime visit. First, it circled the house within ten feet from her front door, she said, where her outdoor camera caught it passing at 2:30 in the morning. Then, the cat walked to the far end of the yard by the chicken coup, chased chickens into a tree, captured one, and visited a cluster of pine trees, where it jumped up on apple bins and climbed trees before leaving the yard via the mailbox and crossing the street.
Later, after watching the captured video footage, Ortiz realized she had been in the backyard fixing a breaker in her RV at the same time the cougar passed through the front. “I was in shock,” she said, “thinking of all the times the kids have been in the yard playing without a care in the world.”
Ortiz called the WDFW and learned a cougar had killed an alpaca at her neighbor’s house two days earlier. Worried about her mini donkey and mini horse, she kept an eye on the camera at night and made sure she had bear spray and guns close at hand. She asked people with cougar hunting tags to scope out the area and ensure the cougar wasn’t still in the trees. “I didn’t sleep for a few nights, listening to every noise outside,” she said.
A male cougar is a solitary animal and reaches maturity at about four years old when he’s big and strong enough to defend a territory of about 150 square miles. The mature cougar, which weighs up to 160 pounds and is the second largest member of the cat family in the western hemisphere, will spend most of its time patrolling territory boundaries, which are very defined and used by generations of cougars, often following rivers, mountains ranges or even roads. This area will encompass all or part of two or three females’ home ranges. These ranges are smaller, usually 30 to 70 square miles. That adds up to about five cougars per 100 square miles of suitable habitat.
The Life of A Cougar
Because cougars are territorial animals, mature males kill any other males that infringe on their territory. This killing of competitors self-limits the population, explained Beausoleil. Cougars killing cougars is the number one cause of death in the wild. Besides wolves, cougars are the only animal in North America to self-regulate their numbers in this manner.
When an older male dies, its death raises a vacancy sign for younger rogue cougars, old enough to leave their mothers, but too young to develop territorial instincts or defend the traditional territory. Two to three new cougars may move in to replace a single older adult. They’ll also wander through, often overlapping other males with undefended territories, until they reach an age where they can start defending their space. This temporary surge in population, which may be the case in the Lake Chelan Valley, can increases sightings and push the hot button on more conflict with humans.
But the answer to human-cougar conflict doesn’t have to be a dead cat on the tailgate, said Beausoleil, who promotes a management plan that uses a science-based approach. About five years ago, he authored a paper titled, “Research to Regulation: Cougar Social Behavior as a Guide for Management.” It compiled results from six studies across the state and years of research that cost close to eight million dollars. In the studies, scientists caught cougars, radiomarked the cats with collars, and tracked their movements using GPS and satellite telemetry to identify habitats and learn more about behavior and social organization.
Washington State has about 35,000 square miles of cougar habitat. Cougars live in terrain ranging from forested lowlands to rugged and remote mountainous areas, including steep canyons, rock outcroppings, and boulders, dense brush, and forests. Finding and collaring the cats is arduous work.
In the last study, 77 cougars were captured and collared 99 times in the Methow Valley, about 30 miles north of Lake Chelan, over ten years. Beausoleil and a handful of team members traveled by snowmobile to sleuth out the big cats during the winter months. They split up to cover 50 miles a day, at two miles an hour, to search for tracks. Once they found cougar tracks, a researcher retrieved dogs owned by team members, as well as the WDFW’s Karelian bear dogs, towing them to the site in a box on skis.
Black and white Karelian bear dogs were initially bred in Europe, in the region between Finland and Russia called Karelia, to hunt big game. In Washington and Nevada, they are trained to help manage wildlife, specifically cougars and bears. In the Methow, wearing bells and GPS collars, up to four dogs, including Beausoleil’s dogs Indy and Cash, were let loose near the cat tracks to pursue the cougar.
Below: Tarp spread around a tree trunk to catch a cougar as it falls after being drugged. Box carriers for wildlife towed by snowmobiles. Right: Karelian bear dog alerts at treed cougar. Photos courtesy of Rich Beausolleil, WDFW.
Once the dogs found and treed the cat – cougars are not known for long-distance running - researchers attached a 65-pound net to the tree. First, they secured a heavy-duty strap around the trunk to secure the net, then spread it out ten feet in all directions before shooting the cougar with a tranquilizer. About 60 percent of cats fell into the net. For the others, Beausoleil climbed the tree and lowered the sleeping cougar to the ground. If the cougar was more than 40 feet high, they left the cougar for another day due to safety concerns. The animals were collared for up to eight years.
The research team plotted nearly 90,000 GPS and satellite telemetry locations from around 500 radio-collared cougars. It was slow research, but the results of all the state’s studies relayed consistent data about cougar behavior and social structure. For example, subadult male cougars will travel 120 straight airline miles from where they are born. Kittens stay with their mom for up to 18 months. Researchers found collared cats from the Methow running on the north shore of Lake Chelan. They watched mature male cougars patrol and defend their territories, as well as younger males, cross lines and upset critical social structure.
The data was used to develop the state’s current science-based cougar management plan, which despite more encounters in the Lake Chelan Valley, is working well, said, Beausoleil. Founded on cougar behavior and social organization, the approach is designed to maintain an older age structure that should promote population stability, with a harvest strategy based on a population growth rate of 14 percent. “We now know the ramifications of too high a harvest,” said Beausoleil. “I believe science provides the guardrails for improved management.”
Ask the wildlife manager about his feelings for cougars, and he fixes you with a steady stare, before carefully answering, “I appreciate what they do. Their life is hard. They seldom live more than eight years old, they are kicked and gored with antlers, they kill each other, and they live solitary lives. The African leopard has nothing on the American cougar, which can kill prey five times as big and defend a home range ten times bigger. We should treat them more like world-class big game animals than pests – or villains. It’s simple to avoid problems with a little prevention and respect.”
Pictured below: Rich Beausoleil, WDFW Bear & Cougar Specialist. Photo by Celese Hankins.
“Biologists who have conducted numerous studies in the state point to data that shows no evidence of an explosion in cougar population. Instead, said biologist Rich Beausoleil, a statewide WDFW cougar, and bear expert who lives in Wenatchee, the current cougar harvest is two to three times larger since the state outlawed hound hunting more than 20 years ago and then expanded the hunting season from 65 to 242 days. ”