When a cougar attacked a 9-year-old girl who was playing hide-and-seek near Fruitland, Wash., last week, it reignited long-simmering concerns about what some believe is an overabundant cougar population in Northeast Washington.
“Sorry to say, it’s proving what we’ve been saying for quite some time now,” said Dale Magart, the secretary of the Northeast Washington Wildlife Group based in Colville. “There are too many cougars out there. We’re going to have increased incidents.”
Meanwhile, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials maintain that much about cougar behavior and ecology remains unknown and caution that while tragic, cougar attacks are exceedingly rare.
“I can’t say there is any long-term trend that I have seen, that I could point to and say that things are getting worse or things are getting better,” said WDFW Captain Jeff Wickersham, who has worked for the agency for 20 years. “Incidents happen and then they don’t. I will say incidents such as this are extremely rare.”
There have been two fatal attacks on humans in Washington state, including one in 2018 and 20 that resulted in injuries to humans in the past 100 years, according to WDFW. In 2019, a child was attacked by a cougar in Leavenworth.
The rural northeastern corner of Washington is home to the majority of the state’s wolf population and has seen increased human-cougar encounters in recent years. That’s raised concerns about public safety, particularly when it comes to cougars. Those concerns boiled over in 2018 when 60 or so people from Northeast Washington attended a WDFW commission meeting in Spokane and voiced, sometimes angrily, their worries.
That meeting, among others, prompted the state wildlife agency to review human cougar safety concerns. In 2020, the Washington Fish and Wildlife commission liberalized the cougar harvest allowance in response to hunter requests for more opportunity in 19 game management units (GMUs) in Northeast Washington.
Following that, an agency cougar conflict science review examined a number of questions about cougar behavior and human-cougar interactions. According to those findings, which were published in January, the “review concluded that the roles of cougar removals; cougar population size; the abundance or diversity of prey; human population size, distribution, or recreation levels; human attitudes, and competition with other large carnivores in human-cougar interactions remain uncertain, due mostly to limited or poor data and shortcomings in analytic methods used.”
“They are difficult to study. They’re elusive,” WDFW wildlife program director Eric Gardner said. “They occur in low densities.”
That is in contrast to other species, like deer or elk. Elk, for instance, are counted via helicopter during the winter when it’s easy to spot the herd animals. Further frustrating research efforts, there hasn’t been as much interest in cougars historically because the big cats were nearly extirpated (local extinction) from Washington and other western states. WDFW estimates that there are 3,600 cougars in the state.
“I think there is a lot to be learned there,” Gardner said. “I think there is a lot to be learned about cougar behavior.”
As to concerns about a growing cougar population in Northeast Washington, Gardner said, “You really can’t say for the state that we’re seeing an uptick or downtick in the cougar population.”
That kind of statement frustrates Magart, who grew up in Stevens County and said he’s seen deer and elk populations plummet, while sightings of cougars and wolves have increased.
“It’s frustrating the way we’re going and the way we’re seeing our deer numbers are half of what we saw five years ago just because of predation,” he said.
Magart points to increased cougar removals in response to public safety concerns as evidence of an increase in the cougar population. In 2019, WDFW police killed 10 cougars in Stevens County in response to public safety concerns and cougar attacks on livestock or other animals. In 2020, WDFW police killed 14 cougars. In 2021, they killed seven.
That’s an imperfect metric, however, one that can be influenced by a number of factors, including the readily available nature of remote cameras – technology that even 10 years ago was mostly too expensive for the average person.
“Anybody can put out a trail camera on a national forest and see what’s coming down the forest road,” Wickersham said.
WDFW and other natural resource agencies are using these same technologies to study cougars in ways that were once impossible.
The yearslong Washington Predator Prey Project is evaluating how cougars and wolves are impacting prey species and other predator species in Washington. Findings from those studies are starting to be published.
At the same time, the Kalispel Tribe is wrapping up a study looking at ways of scaring cougars, including using hounds, while also documenting whether these methods prompt mountain lions to change their behavior.
WDFW has also formed a cougar advisory committee looking at education and outreach. Following last week’s attack in Fruitland, WDFW has re-emphasized best practices about staying safe in cougar country (see sidebar).
All of which is good and important, said WDFW commissioner Kim Thorburn from Spokane.
But she hopes that the focus on individual responsibility doesn’t preclude state management decisions.
“It concerns me that we if we focus solely on education and outreach and individual responsibility it detracts from asking questions about population approaches,” she said.
The commission has started to revise the state’s game management plan, a process that helps biologists build hunting seasons. That plan includes cougar hunting.
Meanwhile Lily Kryzhanivskyy, the 9-year-old girl attacked by the cougar, is doing well and as of Friday evening was “expecting discharge at any moment,” said her father Yuri Kryzhanivskyy. As for his beliefs on questions about cougar management, population density and how the state should respond?
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “We see it as a freak accident.”
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