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Myth Busters: A mountain lion fact-finding mission

by: Kathryn True

A mountain lion has made its home on Vashon since last July. Its presence inspires awe, joy, fear, excitement, and fuels rumors. At Vashon Nature Center, we hear many questions and concerns about the cougar. We came up with a list of the most commonly held misconceptions and asked Dr. Brian Kertson, cougar expert and wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), to address them.

For more information, see Vashon Nature Center’s Living with Wildlife pages and our Coexisting with Large Predators fact sheet, or WDFW’s Living with Wildlife Cougar pages.

Vashon Nature Center is a research and education center. We field questions about living with wildlife and collect wildlife sightings as part of the island’s natural history record, but we do not manage wildlife. Questions or issues pertaining to cougar management should be referred to WDFW.

Myth #1: Vashon-Maury is not cougar habitat.

Brian Kertson: The big driver in that equation is that there are both deer and relatively large chunks of unbroken forest on Vashon. Those two factors alone make it cougar habitat. Mountain lion habitat needs in western Washington are not particularly complicated—they need cover and prey (mainly deer)—and island forests provide a lot of both. The residential density on Vashon is low enough that development modifies the habitat, but doesn’t make it unsuitable.

This screenshot taken from VNC’s wildlife camera network was the first confirmation that our cougar is a male. The small black dot revealed when his tail flips to the side is the indicator! Learn more about sexing and aging a cougar.

Another thing I have heard is that cougars don’t belong on islands, but the reality is that cougars swim open water all the time—across lakes and rivers—and they routinely travel island-to-island and mainland-to-island. (The cougar currently living on Vashon-Maury likely swam over from the Kitsap Peninsula on a minus tide. There is a viable, consistent cougar population on Kitsap. Most likely this cat was a subadult male that dispersed from natal territory, which they typically do when they are 18 months old.)

There is a difference between what people perceive as habitat and what cougars perceive as habitat. He’s been there for at least nine months, and if it wasn’t cougar habitat, he would have left by now. He appears to be finding what he needs to survive.

 

Myth #2: There have never been cougars here and they shouldn’t be here now.

KT: Vashon Nature Center has researched historical records of island cougars: They were photographed and noted in news records on the island several years from 1915 thru 1924. More recently, cougar sightings were reported in 2011, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Myth #3: There must be two cougars because they have been reported on opposite ends of the island from one day to the next.

Brian Kertson: Cougars can easily travel 10 to 12 miles in a single day. It would not take very long for the cat to traverse the island.

This map shows only sightings that have been confirmed by photo or track/sign from June 2016 through May 2017. During this time VNC has also received 120 sightings reports but it is impossible to verify word-of-mouth sightings (scientific research done on sightings reports  indicates that as many as 75% of word of mouth sightings are mistaken!) Timing data from our wildlife camera network shows that this cougar has moved from one end of the island to the other in as little as a day or as long as 16 days (movements are likely dictated by the cat’s hunting success). Map created by: B Perla from VNC wildlife sightings database.

Myth #4: It’s easy to protect livestock in the presence of large predators.

Brian Kertson: I recognize it can be both difficult and inconvenient to round up animals and board them every night—there is time and energy involved, and better fences cost money. Persistence is important to consistently reduce the risk to your animals. But that’s the reality when you live in a landscape where large carnivores are present; you have to behave differently.

The overwhelming majority of cougar attacks on livestock occur at night. If you board animals at night, you drastically reduce your animals’ chances of being attacked by a cougar. It’s also important to have good fences that deter carnivores from pursuing livestock and keep them from being in a situation where they are more likely to be attacked. Other effective deterrents are guard dogs, good lighting, and electric fencing.

KT: State investigations of depredations on the island (including use of dogs to track cougar scent at kills) indicate that coyotes or domestic dogs are frequently responsible for livestock deaths initially attributed to cougar. Since last summer, three alpacas, and one sheep have been confirmed as cougar depredations—four other sheep are considered possible but unknown due to lack of evidence. Vashon Nature Center staff recognize the high emotional toll these deaths take on their owners and the community. This makes it essential that we support each other in sharing what we learn as we make changes to adapt to the presence of wild predators. As part of this effort, VNC is creating a local resource directory of people who have had success protecting their animals and are willing to share their experiences and lessons learned. Let us know if you have ideas of other ways we can help each other.

VNC staff and volunteers enjoyed following the cougar’s tracks for almost one mile down the beach last fall. Our cougar’s tracks are just a tad smaller than average indicating that this male is likely young. Raccoon tracks can also be seen here. photo by: Bob Lane

Myth #5: There’s something wrong with this cougar because it keeps being seen.

Brian Kertson: Vashon is not a huge island and the human population is sufficiently large enough that the chances for any one person seeing the cat on any given day are probably a lot greater than people realize. Simply seeing it is not abnormal at all; they are very active during the day. It would be abnormal if the cougar was going into people’s garages or walking down the middle of a well-traveled road. But seeing it on edges of property or running across the road in the late afternoon or early morning … that’s just being in right place at the right time. Somebody’s going to see it here and there. WDFW routinely receives reports of cougar sightings throughout the state in situations very much like Vashon in terms of residential development patterns and human population size. Sightings might be unsettling for some residents, but there is nothing abnormal about it.

Myth #6: Our livestock are getting killed, our children are next.

Brian Kertson: From a behavioral standpoint, humans and livestock represent completely different search images for a cougar. Just like black-tailed deer, the cougar’s primary prey, hooved livestock walk on four legs and eat grass—many species of livestock fit the search image of what a cougar is looking for. Human beings stand upright, walk on two legs, vocalize differently than livestock, and smell very different—we don’t fit the search image of cougar prey. In last 125 years, there have been 18 documented attacks of cougars on people in Washington state. Consequently, the likelihood of encountering a cougar is very low and the odds of being attacked by a cougar are exceptionally low. Educating yourself and your kids on what to do in the event a cougar is encountered is critical to both your welfare and the welfare of the cougar.

Myth #7: If I encounter a cougar, there’s nothing I can do.

Brian Kertson: If you do happen to encounter a cougar, there are things you can do that will greatly reduce the risk of being attacked. Stop, stand tall, and do not run. Maintain eye contact with the cougar, yell, wave your arms, and make yourself as big and intimidating as possible. By doing those things you are very unlikely to be attacked. If you are attacked, fight back as vigorously as best you can—you are likely to be injured, but also more likely to survive.

Myth #8: Now I can’t run or recreate like I used to in island forests.

Brian Kertson: You can absolutely still recreate. Do you have to make some minor modifications? Yes. First and foremost, be mentally prepared. While running or mountain biking you have to recalibrate what is and isn’t possible. Make lots of noise to avoid surprising a cougar. If you are really concerned, carry bear spray (available at outdoor stores for about $40). There is a greater risk of encountering a cougar early in the morning or late in the afternoon—dawn and dusk—but this doesn’t mean that you have to avoid doing things outdoors at these times. More than anything, it’s about being aware.

Myth #9: We wouldn’t have this problem if the state would remove this cougar.

Brian Kertson: Just to be clear, “removing” the cougar would take one of two forms; relocation or, more likely, euthanizing the animal. The decision of whether or not to remove the cat, and how, lies with WDFW’s local enforcement officers. They are monitoring the situation and if they believe removing the cat is warranted, they will remove the cat. Both options require locating and capturing the cougar, and that is easier said than done. Vashon is not a large island, but there are still a lot of places for the cougar to hide or go undetected. Additionally, WDFW does not have personnel stationed on Vashon, so any capture attempt would require circumstances that ensure the cougar would still be on-site when a team arrives. Unless those circumstances present themselves, removing the cougar is not an option.

Regardless of whether WDFW removes this cougar, Vashon’s residents need to recognize their island is home to a variety of carnivores, and living with these species requires that people adjust their behavior accordingly.

Myth #10: We’d be a lot better off without this cougar.

Brian Kertson: I cannot speak to what people value and whether they think having a cougar present on Vashon makes it better or worse off. However, I can speak to the ecological ramifications of having cougar present because the science is pretty definitive. Ecosystems where top-tier predators are present are more resilient, maintain greater biodiversity, function completely, and frequently provide more ecosystem services for people. When apex predators are absent, herbivores like black-tailed deer can become overly abundant. Overly abundant deer populations can reduce the diversity and abundance of herbaceous plants leading to the elimination of species that rely on those plants. In short, you get a system that becomes more homogenous, deer-heavy, and incomplete. In that situation, you can lose songbirds, invertebrates, and small mammals that depend on the plants that the deer have been ravaging.

Beyond biodiversity and ecosystem function, the cougar’s presence may reduce the deer population— that’s fewer deer that could potentially be hit by a car. As funny as it seems, the cougar might even improve public safety by reducing the risk of automobile collisions with deer on the island.

KT: Thank you to Brian Kertson for taking the time to answer our questions and bust some myths.

Featured photo of the cat at top is from a VNC wildlife camera on Vashon, BPerla. Learn more about our wildcam network.

Fin whale on Vashon

by: Bianca Perla, featured photo above by Kelly Keenan.

Have you ever touched whale skin? It’s slippery and firm like the smooth skin of a wet apple. Have you had the chance to stand and look down into a whale’s gaping mouth? The lines of stiff baleen fray open to reveal a thick purple tongue the size of a full grown human.  If you were at Spring Beach Park last week you may have been one of the lucky ones to stumble upon a leviathan of the deep–a fin whale that met an early demise. Fin whales are federally endangered baleen whales that strain mostly fish and krill through their fibrous mouths. They are the second largest whale species in the world.

A view into a fin whale’s mouth. If you look closely you can see the tongue folded to the side against the back. Some baleen had been removed from this whale’s mouth which is a federal offense. All marine mammals are protected by law. Observing the animal is fine. But, no part of the animal can be removed. Photo by: Bianca Perla

It is transporting to walk carefully around an animal as massive as this with a presence so strong even in death. This whale, I discovered, was male. I imagined the world he came from, the mystery of those liquid realms he glided through. He saw places I can hardly imagine and explored depths, sights, and sounds that I will never understand.

I stopped at his eye, closed in death and larger than a human’s head, and wondered with a sharp sadness what it would have looked like gazing at me, open and alive.

Eye of the fin whale, baleen mouth, and person for scale. Fin whales are our second largest whale species, only blue whales are larger. Photo by: Bianca Perla

This whale had been brought to our shores for an unfortunate reason. He had been found stuck to the bow of a tanker pulling into Commencement Bay in Tacoma. Needing to act fast, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network–spearheaded by NOAA and encompassing a dizzying array of research and response groups from all over the Puget Sound, brought this whale briefly to our island shores. (Other groups present to learn from the whale were: Cascadia Research Collective, SR3, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, MaST, University of Washington. From Vashon-Maury there were representatives from Sound Action and Vashon Nature Center).

Network researchers prepare to start the necropsy. The white gash in the whale’s back is the impact site where the whale was hit by the tanker. Photo by: Bianca Perla.

Why was it necessary to drag this 52-foot long, approximately 70 ton, whale to land?  To conduct a necropsy that would answer whether the whale was sick or healthy, alive or dead at the time of impact. In addition, this necropsy provides valuable information about typical characteristics of this endangered species including length, girth, parasite load, diet, genetics, contaminants, biotoxins and more. Researchers from the University of Washington even collected tissues to help with stem cell research!

Soon after the investigation began, some of the essential questions were answered. Blood spilled like a fountain when researchers cut into the impact site, indicating that the whale’s circulatory system had been working at the time of the strike. He had been alive when he was hit. Furthermore, oily blubber stores, a belly full of krill, and a low parasite load indicated that he had been a healthy juvenile. The case has now been turned over to federal law enforcement officers who will determine if the company that owns the tanker that hit this endangered whale will be deemed liable.

The arrival of this fin whale is harbinger of a larger change throughout Puget Sound. Released from the pressure of large scale whaling operations, these impressive sea mammals are making a comeback. This is great news but their increasing numbers also highlight threats to whale health still present in Puget Sound. According to NOAA, since 2015 we’ve had 4 humpback whale strandings in Puget Sound. Before 2015, we had zero.  Not particularly frequent in the Puget Sound, fin whales seem particularly susceptible to boat strikes. Since 2002, there have been 12 fin whale deaths recorded in the Pacific Northwest, 10 of these from boat impact.

Talking to researchers on the beach I learned that this fin whale was the third whale stranding in our region in the last 10 days (the other 2 were gray whales– one a calf caught in derelict crab gear, and a mature female in poor nutritional condition. Another gray whale (22) was struck by a boat, but she survived and is healthy and well.) These necropsy crews have had almost no down time. Which brings up a final challenge: What do you do with dead whales?

The preferred option is to leave whales on the beach to decompose, as would happen if they died naturally and floated to shore. Their carcasses provide an abundant food source to wildlife of all types. Other options include sinking or burying them–both much less ecologically beneficial and also incredibly tricky. In some areas, the law does not allow the sinking of whales, and the permitting process for sinking or burying (can you imagine burying a 52-foot-long, six foot tall carcass???) are extremely complex and time consuming.

However, sometimes leaving the whales on the beach is not an easy task either. Very few people are thrilled about having a whale decompose on their beach, even if that beach is a public park. After complaints from a few Spring Beach residents, NOAA worked hard to find a more remote place on our island shores where the whale could be relocated. Although we have many long stretches of uninhabited shoreline, no willing land managers or private land owners, besides the original Vashon Park District owned site (thank you VPD!) came through.

After much discussion, the network did find a solution that would keep the carcass on a beach. At the expense of the tanker company that hit him, the fin whale was towed, at high tide, at midnight, to rest on McNeil Island, where there is no public or research access.

Seeing a marine mammal this size is an amazing experience! Photo by: Bianca Perla.

The chance to see a dead whale up close is a fascinating experience that many islanders would enjoy. In addition, following a whale carcass through all stages of decomposition could be an incredible scientific and educational endeavor for the whole community. Before we learned the whale was to be moved, Vashon Nature Center initiated conversations with the network about mounting a wildlife camera or webcam to document the wildlife that made use of the whale throughout the decomposition process. Whales have been absent from the Puget Sound for so long we have virtually no understanding of their potential influence on the Puget Sound ecosystem, even in their death.

We view this a big missed opportunity–for scientists, the local community,  schools, and park visitors. There was not much time to make decisions and the concept new to land managers. Locally, the understanding of accompanying un-pleasantries (smell, sight, extra people on the beach) outweighed the understanding of benefits (scientific knowledge, unique experience, education, wildlife and ecosystem benefits from decomposition).  The positive outcome is that we are now talking about places around Vashon and Maury that might be more palatable to put a stranded whale. This is a conversation that needs to happen. As NOAA stranding network coordinator Kristin Wilkinson aptly states, “The strandings are only going to increase and this is going to come up time and time again.”

As the whales return, we hope to lessen the negative impacts they experience in our waters. But, when a whale does die, will our community be able to find a space for these magnificent animals to cycle back to earth and sea naturally? To be carried in the stomachs of seagulls, in the nibbles of fish, in the talons of eagles, in the jaws of coyotes? We hope so, even if it’s a bit unpleasant and stinky.

More information: Marine mammal stranding network, Cascadia Research Collective autopsy report, SR3.

To report dead, injured or stranded marine mammals call our local marine mammal stranding coordinator or one of the above groups: Anne Stateler, 206-463-9041 or vashonorcas@aol.com.

Please note: Public access to Spring Beach Park is by water only. There is no public land access and the whale is now gone.

BeachNET launches as part of larger Salish Sea restoration

by: Kathryn True

On several cold, wet nights this winter, while the rest of us cozied up by the fire, a group of intrepid scientists and volunteers visited local beaches to pan for gold—fish gold to be exact. They carefully measured out predetermined beach sections, then used modified gold-panning equipment to sift fish eggs out of their sandy beds. They sent these samples to a Department of Natural Resources lab where researchers determine and report back the numbers and kinds of forage fish found. Each beach was chosen for contrasting characteristics to give scientists information about what makes healthy fish habitat.

This effort is one part of the island BeachNET Program, a citizen-science partnership between Vashon Nature Center, Vashon-Maury Land Trust, Washington Department of Natural Resources, King County, and the University of Washington. BeachNET (Beach Nearshore Ecology Team) is the active hand of the Citizen Stewardship Committee for Maury Island Aquatic Reserve. The Citizen Stewardship Committee plans citizen science studies, educational opportunities, and stewardship activities in the reserve. It is coordinated by Vashon Nature Center and open to anyone (contact us to sign up). This forage fish survey is just one of many projects conceptualized by this Committee and carried out by BeachNET volunteers.

“These fish are important and are called forage fish for a reason: they are foraged,” says Bianca Perla, director of Vashon Nature Center. “They are the underpinning of the whole food web and are supposed to be very abundant. Their existence is critical to salmon and sea birds.” The study focuses on sand lance and surf smelt; though herring are also key forage fish, they spawn in deeper waters so egg abundance can’t be measured using the panning method.

Sand lance eggs found by Vashon BeachNET volunteers at Piner Point. This is shown under a microscope. The eggs are stuck to sand grains. Photo courtesy: Galen Richards, WADNR

A critical part of the forage-fish life cycle is beach spawning. During a high-tide (using some sort of fishy “seavite” system, they all know when to show up) the fish swim together in a frenzied mass to deposit eggs and milt. These free-floating gametes somehow find each other and join to make zygotes before falling to the sediment where they will develop over the next several weeks. The tide then recedes, leaving the newly fertilized eggs exposed and vulnerable.

“We’re focusing on this part of the life cycle because we’re losing so many natural beaches,” Perla says. “We’re losing a lot of sand due to bulkheading and shoreline development. This also eliminates trees and other overhanging vegetation, which shades the eggs and keep them from drying out.”

“Since the Dust Bowl we have all been trained to fear erosion, so to turn around and tell people erosion is good for our shorelines is difficult to get across,” says Tom Dean, director of the Land Trust about the difficulty of selling the idea of bulkhead removal to landowners. “For years, we’ve had lots of efforts to teach about animals found on the beach, and now it’s time to go the next step to, ‘What am I seeing in the physical landscape and what does that mean for the health of beach creatures?’ This is groundbreaking work, and under Greg Rabourn at King County’s leadership we are pushing the envelope on this issue so we can demonstrate what we learn to people throughout Puget Sound.” Data collected on Vashon will contribute to a Puget Sound research study spearheaded by Jason Toft at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Though they serve as lynchpins of the entire food web, we know very little about forage fish. That’s where the BeachNET Program comes in. Examining side-by-side different habitat characteristics that provide good egg-rearing conditions will help define the perfect conditions under which these fish thrive. The Vashon study compares stretches of contiguous shoreline that include three types of beaches: untouched shoreline, shoreline with bulkheads that will not be removed, and shoreline with bulkheads that will be removed as part of this study, which will provide useful before-and-after snapshots of beach health.

“Salmon have been studied quite a bit, but their food hasn’t,” adds Perla. “We’re starting to put the pieces together and realize that an important part of protecting salmon is keeping their food populations healthy.”

This is one in a series of posts about the BeachNET Program. This spring, Vashon Nature Center will train volunteers interested in being part of this and more citizen science projects on the beach. To join us on the beach, email: info@vashonnaturecenter.org. Learn more about BeachNET and Maury Island Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee.