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Increased cougar sightings don’t necessarily mean increase in big cats’ population

September 27, 2018

Cougars have been in the news this summer.

A deadly attack in May near Seattle. A hiker dead in Oregon, likely killed by a cougar. In September, a girl near Inchelium, Washington, 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 and eventually euthanized.

All these sightings, incidents and attacks have left many wondering, why? One common-sense answer: There must be more cougars.

Experts disagree.

“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.

Kertson studies large carnivores for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For two decades, much of his research has focused on cougars. He’s found is that the number of reported incidents is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

“It’s totally counterintuitive,” he said.

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.”

“But I’m skeptical that they actually know that,” Kertson said. “Cougar populations are very, very difficult to enumerate outside of intensive field research. Those sort of assessments are made based on anecdotal observations.”

Instead, the rate at which cougars enter and inhabit human areas remains relatively steady regardless of the overall population, Kerston said. That finding comes from one of his studies in Western Washington, near Snoqualmie. The study has not yet been published.

Between 2004 and 2008, about 50 percent of the adult females Kertson studied survived. That number is “bad” and “indicative of a population decline,” he said.

And yet during that time, the “average cougar used residential areas 16 percent of the time.”

Compare that to 2013-17, when about 90 percent of female cougars survived. The average residential use remained more or less the same, Kertson said.

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.

“Our human population is three times larger than those states combined,” he said. “We are the tip of the spear and we are going to continue to face these challenges moving forward.”

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.

“When you have a really high-profile event, like we did recently in May, that draws additional scrutiny,” he said. “Just because we weren’t aware they were there doesn’t mean they weren’t there. As we’ve accumulated knowledge and we’re more aware of an issue, we look for it.”

That’s a well-documented cognitive phenomenon known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or more simply, the frequency illusion.

Essentially, once you learn or experience something, you’re more likely to notice that same thing in the future.

With two high-profile deadly cougar attacks this summer, it’s no surprise that people are noticing – and reporting – the animals, Kertson said.

That kind of pattern isn’t limited to cougars. Regional wildlife mangers see a rise in reports any time there is a high-profile event.

“We see an increase in calls after any type of news event,” said Michael Atamian, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Spokane. “The magnitude of the news event mirrors the magnitude of the calls.”

Other cougar researchers’ work supports Kertson’s findings.

Mat Alldredge, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher, said his cougar research in Colorado’s Front Range indicates that the number of cougar incidents and sightings is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

Instead, like Kertson, he thinks it’s a combination of increasing human presence and increasing awareness.

“I would strongly question anyone saying that this is the result of increasing lion population,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t seasonal and regional fluctuation. But cougar populations have stayed stable since the mid-1990s, Alldredge said.

There is plenty of misinformation about cougars, Kertson said. Scientists are also learning new things about the big cats as technology improves.

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. It’s true that there are more cougars in the West than in the past, but Alldredge said that population steadied in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the animals have lived in their traditional habitats and as technology has made it easier to track and study the wide-ranging mammals, researchers have learned more.

For instance, recent research indicates that cougars are more social than previously believed, although the findings are questioned by some biologists. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be a cougar researcher.

“I think people seem to forget sometimes that this is a remarkably adaptable mammal,” Kertson said.

Cougars and humans will, barring some major collapse of either population, have to coexist.

For humans, that means being aware that the big cats live nearby, whether we want them to or not, Kertson said. He urges people to not feed wildlife – like deer – that could attract cougars. For people who have goats, chickens or other animals, Kertson said it’s important to keep those animals in some sort of shelter, especially at night.

If you’re in cougar country, be aware. Think ahead. Know how to respond.

“I think personal responsibility for people is really important,” he said.

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