Cougar numbers leveling off

By Jayson Jacoby, WesCom News Service October 18, 2013 09:14 am

For a stealthy animal, the cougar used to make quite a racket in Northeastern Oregon.

In the public arena, anyway.

Then the wolves came. 

The wolves that started establishing packs in this corner of the state close to a decade ago haven’t displaced cougars on the landscape, state wildlife biologists say.

But the wolves have pretty much supplanted their fellow predator in the local headlines.

This trend can be explained in part by the relative novelty of wolves, a species that was officially extirpated from Oregon in the 1940s.

Cougars, although their population in the state plummeted to perhaps a few hundred animals in the 1960s, have always been around.

Since the species’ nadir almost half a century ago, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has controlled hunting, allowing cougar populations to grow steadily.

That growth accelerated for some time after 1994, when Oregon voters approved a ballot measure banning cougar hunters from using dogs, the preferred and easiest method to track the elusive felines.

State officials estimate there are about 5,700 cougars in Oregon today, compared with an estimated 3,000 before the dog ban was enacted.

Northeastern Oregon includes some of the better habitat for, and denser populations of, these cats.

As a result, people who live in the region aren’t as likely to be shocked, compared with a decade ago, when they read about cougars roaming not only the forests, but also occasionally near homes and towns.

“People are more accustomed to cougars at this current population level,” said Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

“They’re not novel any more. Wolves have taken on that role.”

Here’s another anecdote, also from ODFW:

Pat Matthews, the district wildlife biologist at the agency’s Enterprise office, said that in the past he would get an occasional phone call from someone who was planning to visit the area — for a backpacking trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, for instance — who asked him about the need to take special protections to protect against cougars.

There are no documented cases of a cougar killing a person in Oregon, although there have been a few fatal attacks in California in the past 20 years.

“The past few years people don’t ask about cougars — they ask about wolves,” Matthews said.

Anecdotal evidence isn’t the only reason to believe that the region’s cougar population has either leveled off, or isn’t rising as quickly as in the past, said Bruce Johnson, an ODFW employee in La Grande and one of the state’s leading cougar researchers.

Statistics suggest that same trend, said Johnson, who has been studying cougars in Northeastern Oregon, and in particular their effects on deer and elk herds, for 12 years.

Johnson’s colleague, Darren Clark, is writing his doctoral dissertation for Oregon State University based on a 2009-12 field study of cougars in the Mount Emily Unit north of La Grande.

Results from that study, which was intended to gauge the effect cougars are having on deer and elk herds in that area, suggest a relatively stable population of cougars, Johnson said.

Because hunters are required to report all cougar kills to ODFW, the agency has a significant volume of data to draw on.

“It appears that the population is relatively stable,” Johnson said.

In the Blue Mountains zone, one of six cougar-hunting zones in Oregon, sport hunters killed 101 cats in 2012, 93 in 2011, and 91 in 2010, according to ODFW.

The number of cougars killed by other means — because they roamed near homes, for instance, or were hit by a car — also has been relatively steady over that three-year period.

Johnson said that after voters banned hunters from using dogs, cougar populations in the Blue Mountains south and west of Interstate 84 increased as cats migrated into those areas, which had comparatively low cougar populations, from the more densely populated areas to the north and east of the freeway.

Matthews said another relevant statistical measure is the survival of elk calves in Wallowa County.

Calf survival rates were quite low for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, a trend ODFW attributed largely to the increasing prevalence of cougars.

Over the past few years, though, elk populations in Wallowa County have been relatively stable, Matthews said.

“That’s indicative of cougar numbers having stabilized as well,” he said.

Dan Brassard, who lives near Baker City, used to hunt cougars frequently.

He agrees with the ODFW biologists that cougar populations seem to have reached an equilibrium of sorts in the region.

“You can’t have a cougar behind every rock – they’re self-regulating,” Brassard said.

That’s true, Johnson said.

Adult male cougars, for instance, will kill or drive off younger males that trespass on their home range, which can cover dozens of square miles.

That trait of cougars sometimes results in a young male coming into inhabited areas.

A recent example is the 83-pound male cougar that was killed Sept. 23 in the Eagle Cap Estates area of La Grande.

ODFW’s strategy of controlling cougar populations by encouraging sport hunters seems to have worked.

Several years ago the state started allowing hunters to kill cougars year round. Tags are relatively cheap, at $14, and hunters can buy up to two tags per year.

Oregon’s 2006 cougar management plan calls for maintaining a minimum statewide population of 3,000 cats.

To ensure that, the state sets yearly quotas for the number of cougars that can be killed in each of the six zones. That quota, which includes cougars killed by sport hunters and by other means, is 245 for the Blue Mountains zone, and 777 statewide.

If the quota is reached in any zone before Dec. 31, sport hunting is prohibited for the rest of the year.

Neither the statewide nor the Blue Mountains zone quota has been approached over the past decade.

Although hunters such as Brassard have shown that it’s possible to successfully hunt cougars by following their tracks in the snow, that’s something of a “specialized” technique, Johnson said.

Both Ratliff and Matthews said that about 90 percent of hunters who kill a cougar in the region do so “incidentally” — meaning the hunter was actually looking for another animal, such as a deer or an elk, and happened to see a cougar.

More information about cougars in Oregon is available on ODFW’s website: www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/hunting/big_game/cougar/index.asp