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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougar kills alpacas near Riverside State Park

A cougar is shown near La Grande, Ore., in this undated photo after it had been chased up a tree by dogs. A young male cougar killed at least eight alpacas near Riverside State Park sometime Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. It was later tracked down and killed. (Steve Nehl / Associated Press)

A young male cougar attacked and killed at least eight alpacas near Riverside State Park on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. A nearby llama also died, possibly of stress.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials responded Wednesday. Dogs tracked the cougar and a state shooter killed the 135-pound animal.

A member of the owner’s family said the cougar killed nine animals, but declined to comment further.

Officials placed a camera trap near one alpaca carcass that had been stashed by the cougar. WDFW officials monitored the camera. No other cougars were spotted in the area, leading officials to believe the young male was solely responsible for the attack, said Kile Westerman, a wildlife conflict specialist for the WDFW.

The llama had not been attacked but appears to have died shortly after the alpacas were killed, leading WDFW and the family to believe its death was related to stress from the incident.

The state will not reimburse the owner of the alpacas, Westerman said. Per WDFW guidelines, commercial producers are only eligible for reimbursement from a cougar attack if they lose horses, cattle, sheep or guard dogs, he said. Those guidelines change year to year, and whether reimbursement money is available depends on the Legislature’s budgetary allocations, Westerman said.

Alpacas can cost, on the low end, $500 per head.

The owners of the alpacas didn’t have any attractants in place and the cougar attack was not due to their husbandry practices, Westerman said.

“This last year we’ve had an increase in cougar-related calls or conflicts for whatever reason,” Westerman said.

Biologists and wildlife managers disagree on why there have been more attacks. Some believe increased attacks indicate a growing cougar population. Others say that’s not necessarily the case.

According to one WDFW study, the rate at which cougars enter and inhabit human areas remains relatively steady regardless of the overall population. That finding comes from a study in Western Washington, near Snoqualmie.

Between 2004 and 2008, about 50 percent of the adult females studied in an area survived. That number indicates a declining population. During that same time the average cougar used residential areas 16 percent of the time. Compare that with 2013-17, when 90 percent of female cougars survived in the same study area. The ratio of residential use stayed steady, at 16 percent.

Some biologists believe the increased number of sightings and encounters has to do with an expanding human footprint and the fact that there have been numerous high-profile cougar attacks this year. Those attacks raise awareness, which leads to increased sightings. This is a cognitive phenomenon known as the frequency illusion or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Not all researchers agree with this analysis and some maintain that the cougar population is growing.

Cougars are notoriously hard to study, but improving technology is helping scientists gain a better understanding of the elusive cats. For instance, recent research indicates that cougars are more social than previously believed, although the findings are questioned by some biologists.

Cougars were hunted for decades, leading to their near extinction in North America. But since the 1970s, cougars have been making a slow comeback with stricter hunting regulations and tighter management.

Sienna Graham owns Castle Hills Farms NGG Alpacas with her mother. They also operate near Riverside State Park. Her mother has bred alpacas for more than 30 years.

They haven’t lost any animals to cougars this year, but Graham said coyotes killed three of their alpacas and domestic dogs have attacked several others. Alpaca producers make money breeding the animals, selling their fur and their hide.

“Even losing one is actually a major hit to a business because they’re an all-purpose animal,” she said.