If you live or travel in the Pacific Northwest you may have noticed that cougars have been in the news this summer. A deadly attack in May near North Bend, Wash. A hiker dead in Oregon, likely killed by a cougar. In September, a girl near Inchelium, Wash., shot a cougar after the animal stalked her younger brother. On Monday, a big cat was spotted in a tree in downtown Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and eventually euthanized, reports The Lewiston Tribune.
All these sightings, incidents and attacks have left many wondering, why? One common-sense answer: There must be more cougars.
“Well, I’m not so sure there are that many (more) cougars,” Brian Kerston said.
People often assume that if “we’ve seen a spike in the number of reports” there must be more cougars, Kerston said. But research he’s done doesn’t support that claim.
Instead, what leads to cougar attacks, sightings and incidents has more to do with people and less to do with the animals.
That contradicts anecdotal evidence and statements by some wildlife managers. In a Tuesday Spokesman-Review article, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Jim Hayden said, “We’re seeing dispersal and seeing the range expansion of mountain lions in the West.”
So, what is actually going on? There isn’t one simple answer, but three things may point observers in the right direction.
First, the number of humans has increased dramatically. Washington’s population has essentially doubled since 1990. That expansion inevitably increases pressure on cougar habitat.
At the same time, more people are recreating outside. That means even if people don’t live in cougar habitat, they are heading into cougar habitat on the weekends.
“Washington is so interesting because we really are the tip of the spear,” Kerston said. “We have a full suite of large carnivores. We have cougars. We have black bears. We have wolves. We even have grizzlies.” The only other western states that can boast that kind of diversity are Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
But still, what about the increased number of sightings, attacks and complaints? Anecdotal evidence, while perhaps not scientifically valid, still counts for something. Especially if you’re the one being stalked by an apex predator.
Kerston doesn’t doubt that people have been reporting more cougar sightings. But he believes that has more to do with the human brain and less to do with the cats.