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Mountain lion sightings on the rise across Valley


Published on Thursday, December 15, 2005

One of the bulls on Mark Herke's ranch in the Ahtanum was bellowing its head off one night last July. Nothing new in that. Bulls bellow all the time, usually at each other.

On this night, though, Herke's wife, Lisa, told him the sound was "especially bloodcurdling."

The next morning, the bull was dead.

So was one of the Herkes' cows.

A couple of weeks later, one of the Herkes' neighbors, Hiram White, noticed that his dogs were acting funny. They were barking furiously at something outside, but wouldn't go out. Says White, "They were scared of something out there."

In mid-October, an employee on West Valley orchardist Dean Frey's property investigating a commotion late one night found a dead calf. A couple of weeks later, another was killed. Both were weaning-sized calves, as large as 400 pounds each. "They were too big to be killed by dogs," says Frey. "And when dogs kill them, they just chew them all to smithereens."

At about the same time, three calves on Wenas cattle rancher John Ashbaugh's spread were killed. Nothing new in that, either; three years earlier, the Ashbaughs had lost five calves. At that time, a trapper had found remnants of the calves' distinctive red coat in some scat along a dry creek bed.

The animal that dropped the scat? A cougar.

Just like the ones seen near Hiram White's house around the time his dogs were afraid to go out.

Just like the one Mark Herke is absolutely convinced killed his bull and cow and also went after a horse on his property.

Just like the one that, in late October, went after a horse near the White Swan rodeo grounds — in broad daylight, in full view of a bunch of kids on bicycles.

Just like the ones that have, in apparently increasing frequency, been finding their meals in the pastures and back yards of South Central Washington.

"Most certainly," says Jack Field of the Washington Cattlemen's Association in Ellensburg, "we have a cougar problem."

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The numbers, at least in this part of the state, seem to bear that out.

From 2002 through 2004, the number of cougar "incidents" — any sighting or complaint to which Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers responded — remained remarkably steady here. Each year, the WDFW recorded a total of 15 such incidents throughout Yakima, Kittitas, Klickitat and Skamania counties.

This year, there have been 32.

That increase could be partly due to a number of factors, including:

* Human encroachment.

"A lot of people are saying, 'I've never seen cougars before now,' but what's changed a lot is human populations," says Sean Carrell, who monitors the cougar-incident database for WDFW's enforcement division. "We have more and more people moving in and pushing further out into these (cougar) habitats."

* Mistaken identity.

"A lot of times people are missing cattle, and the first thing to blame it on is cougars. Same with dogs and domestic cats," says Gary Koehler, the WDFW wildlife biologist who oversees Project CAT (Cougars And Teaching) in Cle Elum. "With followup, a lot of times it's really tough to point the finger at a cougar."

"Often people make the assumption," says Rocky Spencer, a wildlife department carnivore specialist based in North Bend. "People say they saw a cougar and the next day their cat's missing, and therefore it's obviously the cougar. They don't recognize that bobcats are great predators of domestic cats. So are coyotes and great horned owls."

* The cougar-incident log on the wildlife department's Web site.

Landowners may be more inclined to report cougar incidents now that the department logs them on its Web site — as required now by legislation introduced this year by State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. "Because people didn't trust the department," Kretz says, "assuming that those reports they were making were just getting round-filed."

And, of course, the higher frequency of cougar incidents could simply be an indication that much of the state's cougar population — estimated by different entities at anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 — have become less wary around humans since 1996, when the state's voting public banned the use of hounds in hunting cougars.

Four years later, in response to a twofold rise in cougar complaints — and a cougar population believed to have doubled since 1980 — the state began a limited permit system for cougar removal. Last year, the state initiated a three-year pilot program allowing some hound-hunting of cougars in five Northeast Washington counties where the incidence of cougar-human conflict has been the most frequent.

Kretz, himself a rancher in that cougar territory, says the five-country program is having an impact. "But," he says, "that doesn't mean it's solved anywhere else."

Certainly not in South Central Washington, where problems seem to be mounting.

"For years, we had diddly (in terms of livestock predation by cougars), and all of a sudden it basically took off," says Al Sutton, who spent 35 years as a WDFW enforcement office between White Salmon and Goldendale before retiring three years ago. "It's increased here considerably."

It has done the same on the Yakama Reservation, says Don Harbaugh, who works for the tribe as a predator hunter and nuisance animal trapper.

"In the past, I'd seen one cougar in probably about 50 years," Harbaugh says. "Recently I've seen at least a dozen, from Tampico to Mabton, from the Yakima River to Satus Pass."

One such cougar was the one that was seen pursuing a horse in White Swan, Harbaugh noted, "with kids way too close to the vicinity of it and watching it.

"They're becoming more brazen with their travels amongst us."

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But are there more of them out there?

Although the wildlife department is doing DNA and research studies on cougars in various parts of the state, determining a population figure is still almost impossible at this point, says WDFW carnivore section manager Donny Martorello.

Livestock owners are convinced the numbers are increasing since the 1996 ban on hound-hunting of cougars. Field, of the state cattlemen's association, says that ban "put us as landowners in a box ... took away our ability to respond and be proactive."

Martorello points out that roughly the same number of cougars have been killed annually since the ban was instituted, because of hunting rule changes that both expanded the cougar seasons and made the permits significantly less expensive. Instead of 1,500 Washington hunters with cougar permits prior to the ban, now there are nearly 60,000.

But using that argument, says Kretz, misses both the point and the cougars causing most of the problems.

"Running across a cougar in the wild," he says, "is (like) lightning strikes. When I look at that harvest, what it tells me is we must have a huge number of cougars out there for people to be stumbling across them and shooting them.

"Hound-hunting, by its very nature, targets problem cats. The cougars causing most of the trouble tend to be around houses and roads. They've lost their fear."

And, in some cases, changed their diet. All it takes to create havoc, and sometimes panic, is one or two cougars developing a taste for farm animals and pets. That was the case in Klickitat County last year, when over a six-month span cougars killed a young horse, a donkey, calves, sheep, goats and pets, and attacked and injured a llama.

"Cougars' primary food is going to be deer and elk, and rabbits, grouse, whatever else they can catch," says Goldendale-based WDFW enforcement officer Dan Bolton, who has been dealing with this rise in problem cougars.

"But every now and then you get one where a food source is low and they start getting a taste for livestock. ... If you've got a goat pen back down in these wood lots, I guess a cougar looking through for something to eat decides here's something that's close to a deer."

When livestock kills can be determined to have been caused by cougars — which are also called mountain lions, pumas and panthers — the state can issue depredation permits and approve hounds for the hunt.

But timing becomes an issue if the livestock kill isn't found quickly enough and the cougar trail diminishes. But since the 1996 ban, the number of qualified hound-hunters has diminished greatly, and the state hasn't budgeted the money to match the federal funds necessary to keep enough such hound teams to respond quickly to most incidents.

"If a call comes in for mountain lion help, we may or may not have somebody in the vicinity," says Roger Woodruff, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. "Ten years ago we had more people on board with background in predator removal than now. We've been losing expertise through attrition, and that's due to a lack of cooperative funding.

"We have to be able to deal with these scenarios and handle these problems when they occur. And right now we're not, as an agency, well-positioned to respond."

And that isn't likely to give much solace to landowners in the Ahtanum like Hiram White.

"In the old days, a cougar would make a pass through the place every couple of years, and that was fine," White says. "I don't want cougars as a normal part of life out here. There are too many small kids waiting for school buses, and livestock.

"The problem's not getting smaller. It's getting bigger."


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