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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alan Liere: A cougar in my woods

By Alan Liere The Spokesman-Review

I saw a cougar on my property. Its presence would explain the many deer carcasses I found in the woods this spring. An adult cougar, I’ve been told, will kill a deer every two weeks, and a female with kittens as many as one every three days. I have no doubt the one in my woods has been busy upholding his or her reputation as an efficient predator here, just a few miles north of Spokane.

My springer spaniel Gus has become a deer-bone magnet, something of a leg bone connoisseur. I’m sure he would prefer to be hunting grouse, but the season is over, and on our daily walks, he always … ALWAYS. … finds a bone which he then carries around in his mouth like a giant cigar. When I saw the cougar, the proliferation of bones became clear. The winter had been so mild there was nearly no winter kill, and only a few immediate family members hunt deer on this acreage.

I had been meandering through the forest with my dogs, trying to be quiet, hoping to get a picture of a ruffed grouse drumming on a log. The young Labrador Jill flushed a bird and chased it for a short distance before returning to my side. The spaniel Gus was worrying a leg bone. The older Lab Sis was nowhere in sight.

I assumed Sis was on a grouse scent and would return shortly. After 11 years of superlative pheasant work, Sis had done the unimaginable – become old. Her breathing had become raspy and she had developed a tumor on her belly, but her instinct drove her whenever she got a snoot full of bird. Out of courtesy, I waited without trying to call her in, and finally, she appeared 60 yards away, nosing into the cut where the power lines run up the mountain … . except the yellow form was not my old yellow Lab at all, but an adult cougar. I remember thinking that the fact the cougar was on the move meant it wasn’t feeding on my old dog. Then, the thought struck me that I didn’t know which side of the cut Sis was on. I began yelling as the cat disappeared into a thick stand of noble fir – to let it know it was not alone. A moment later, Sis appeared, nose down on the cat’s trail. It took a lot of loud yelling for me to call her off.

I have mixed feelings about having a cougar in the forest so close to my home. On one hand, it is absolutely thrilling to see something so elusive, beautiful and wild. On the other hand, I am concerned about my grandchildren and the kids who live nearby – not so much I would try to discourage them from exploring the forest alone, but enough to make sure they are familiar with the potential threat. Cougars avoid loud, human noises. That alone should rule out my grandchildren as prey, but I want them to know that if they encounter a cougar they should make eye contact, make themselves appear “big” and above all, not run. I will insist the kids carry a hefty walking stick. We’ll call it a “cat-whacker.”

Many years ago, Washington state voted to ban cougar hunting. When the big cats got so numerous they became bold, however, there was a clamor to “Do something.” Seems some of the same West Side people who had pushed the hunting ban were beginning to see the big cats in their backyards. It put a whole different spin on the controversy: “We want to protect this magnificent beast … but only if it stays on the other side of the state.”

Today, there is a limited hunting season here for cougars, and hunting them with hounds is still banned. You can buy a cougar tag if you wish, but the short season will have nearly no affect on the growing cougar population because your chance of seeing one in the wild is almost the same as your chance of seeing Taylor Swift sitting on a stump in your favorite grouse cover.

I have been extremely fortunate. I live at the base of a small mountain, 8 miles north of the last big housing development, and for 33 years I have wandered these woods, either hunting or just kicking pine cones, probably 100 days each year.

In that time, I have seen two cougars – both within 25 yards of the same big rock, although another was hit by a car a couple of years ago on the paved road above my house. A cougar will live approximately 10 years in the wild, so I may have seen the same cougar twice, five years apart. Their range can be hundreds of square miles, but I would think a cougar in my woods would have everything it needed to stay put. Someday, I fully expect to have one attack my turkey decoy as coyotes sometimes do.

I think that would be exhilarating, although it could cause me some basic hygiene issues, which would most likely diminish my chances with Taylor Swift.