Blog

Meeting the Lion: A Vashon Nature Center Blog Series: Part 1

Vashon Nature Center - Sunset

by: Kathryn True

Vashon-Maury Islands have been host to a cougar for the past year. In the absence of an on-island state wildlife office, many islanders have turned to Vashon Nature Center for questions about the cougar and to report sightings. As we hit the one-year anniversary of the big cat’s arrival, we wanted to reflect on this year of living with a cougar. This blog series is not intended to make a case either for or against the cougar being here, but to encapsulate from a natural history perspective how islanders live with and experience one element of our varied wildlife. Through human stories about living with the cougar, we hope to shed some light on our expectations and fears, how they shape the world around us, and how nature shapes us.

Footprints of Vashon-Maury’s current cougar resident in the sand. photo by: Bob Lane

A year ago, on a fir-scented summer morning somewhere on the Kitsap Peninsula, a young male cougar woke up with his mother and siblings for the last time. He was restless. Recently, on more than one occasion, he’d come upon the scent of another male cougar, and it was now time for him to follow growing urges to find his own territory—to make his own home. Maybe he wrestled with his sister, maybe his mom licked his head one last time, or maybe he set out without looking back. This is the natural order of things for a male mountain lion—to leave home before the age of two, locate and mark a territory, find females, and reproduce. This was much easier to do before widespread human development—former forest lands turned unpredictable mazes of roads and fences, are an ever-thickening obstacle course of homes, and humans.

The young cougar headed east, and sticking to wooded areas he sought cover as he wended away from his natal forest. It smelled more and more promising as he moved away from a loud strip of black land whizzing with metal boxes, and he finally reached a beach and looked east; a sea of salt water lapped at his paws, rounded stones pressed between his toes. In the distance, a wide swath of green was enticing, though he’d have to swim to reach it. He didn’t mind swimming, so in the promising light of a July half-moon, he set off dog-paddling—or cat-paddling, as it were. Breathing heavily, he focused his gaze on the land ahead, surprising a passing sea lion, and powered through the intense currents of what he didn’t know as Colvos Passage. Exhausted, he finally he pulled himself onto a deserted island shore.

Below are stories of the first two cougar reports Vashon Nature Center received last summer. Subsequent posts in this series will cover additional cougar encounters and impressions from islanders. We extend a heartfelt thanks to those of you who shared a story, photo record, or your expertise with us. There is one perspective we regret not being able to include—that of the big cat himself.

First sighting: Dilworth, July 26, 2016

On a glowing evening late last July, islander Suzanne Fiala and her sisters relaxed in lawn chairs in her yard sipping iced tea and soaking in each other’s company after picnicking at Lisabeula. It was a rare reunion for the three women who were raised on a 160-acre ranch in northern Idaho, and now live in Denver, Bellingham and Vashon. Growing up with bears in the garden and elk bugling through their dreams, wildlife was commonplace in their family’s remote outpost situated between Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.

Well-settled on two acres in the Dilworth area in northeast Vashon, Dr. Fiala, a family practitioner who works for Kaiser, has lived here 11 years and knows well the likely wild mammal suspects on her island property: deer, raccoons and squirrels. Her three rescue dogs, a pit bull, Boston terrier and pug mix, keep them wary. So, she thought her sister was mistaken when she said there was a cougar strolling along the edge of the property about 100 yards away. As they turned their attention to the northern fence line, the sisters saw that it was indeed a mountain lion. None of the women were scared, being familiar with cougars from their childhood, and they stared transfixed by the beauty of the giant cat as it sniffed its surroundings.

Fiala, a self-described animal lover and conservationist, was excited because she knew this was a rare occurrence on Vashon. Before any of them could grab a phone to take a photo, the cougar had passed along the edge of the pasture and disappeared into the trees behind a barn.

“We had a very clear line of vision and it was very much a cougar,” Fiala says. “It didn’t appear hungry and seemed extremely comfortable in its surroundings. It sauntered the way cougars do, with a long, looping tail practically touching the ground. It did not go towards my neighbor’s sheep and stood there less than a minute.”

The sisters were the first to see the cougar that has been making Vashon-Maury its home over the past year. The lion is a source of wonder, fear, joy and anger. Since arriving on our shores last summer, he has been making a living along the beaches and in the woods of our wilder areas, occasionally crossing roads surprising drivers and pedestrians.

Suzanne Fiala has followed the cougar’s adventures in stories in The Beachcomber, finding it both sad and troubling that it is viewed as a nuisance, and that people and animals have at times felt threatened by it.

“I have no fear or worry when I’m out walking. I fear more for the cougar’s safety than that of islanders. I recognize that wildlife has its place and is being encroached upon, and I see no reason to kill this magnificent animal,” she says. “We are a small community and I’d hate for us to clash with an animal that could potentially be a danger to small animals or small children. With our over-population of deer, it’s hard to see why it would attack something else unless it was an unusual situation. I wish they would live trap it and relocate it—and I hope it goes back where it came from to run with other cougars. I hate to see it destroyed.”

This sentiment is shared by many islanders, but Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cougar biologist Brian Kertson explains relocating is easier said than done.

“’Removing’ the cougar would take one of two forms; relocation or, more likely, euthanizing the animal. 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,” Kertson says. “Additionally, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (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.”

He adds, “Regardless of whether Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 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.”

“Studies have shown that it is quite normal for a young male cougar to move into a smaller temporary territory that is safe from big aggressive older Tom cats,” says Vashon Nature Center Director Bianca Perla, an ecologist. “I believe he has found his refuge here. Perhaps he is biding his time until he gets big enough, strong enough and experienced enough to venture out and fight for a bigger territory on the mainland with access to mates. Territorial space is scarce, he can’t just move in anywhere he wants to, or be dropped anywhere we want to drop him. If he leaves the island, no matter where he goes, he will have to fight to stay there. It is not an easy life, and the best thing we can do for him is give him the space and understanding he needs to live.”

Second sighting: Bate’s Walk at Paradise Cove, Aug. 5, 2016

It is one of Bobbie Erwert’s favorite summer-day rituals on the island—the 5 a.m. walk with her Maine Coon cat, Buddy. He likes exploring outside, so she walks her indoor cat on a leash to protect him from wild animals like raccoons that populate the area. Bobbie’s husband, Bill, has been coming to the family beach home on Bates Walk at Paradise Cove since the early 1960s, and the couple has spent part of the year on the island for nearly 40 years.

On Aug. 6 of last year, Bobbie and Buddy had just rounded the corner of her boathouse when she heard a loud snorting coming from the water to the west. She and Bill had watched deer cross Colvos Passage before, but at first glance the large animal swimming her way looked big enough to be a horse. It continued to approach and when it finally reached the shore and exited the water onto the beach, it looked exhausted. The tide was high and there was not much exposed sand, so it was quite close to the bulkhead. As Bobbie registered the animal’s long tail and pointy ears—she knew she was looking at a mountain lion.

“I’d never seen a cougar in the wild before. It froze and looked at me,” she says. “I know better now, but I grabbed my cat and ran.”

Rushing into the house, she shook her husband awake, but by the time they returned to the beach, the mountain lion was gone. They quickly called Camp Sealth—a Campfire Camp located just south of their cabin, fearing for unsuspecting campers, and alerted neighbors to the cougar’s presence.

Vashon Nature Center’s Wildlife First Responder Kelly Keenen visited later that day to look for tracks, but any evidence had been washed away by the high tide.

A year later, Bobbie Ewert doesn’t think of the cougar often, and she still enjoys her early morning summer walks with Buddy. And she says if she does see the big cat again, she knows now not to run.

These first cougar reports initially created a mystery—one sighting was on the north end of the island on land near Dilworth; and the second, nearly two weeks later, was of the cougar swimming across from Colvos … did we have two cougars, or only one that attempted to leave and then returned? We will never know for sure. However, current evidence from Vashon Nature Center’s WildCam network (a fleet of motion-sensing wildlife cameras placed around Vashon and Maury) indicates only one wide-ranging male cougar now present on the island. We have never had a cougar’s photo snapped at the same time on two different cameras. We have evidence from one video capture that this cougar is male, and while it is somewhat hard to tell individual cougars apart, the general physical proportions in photos and track measurements consistently point to one individual.

Future posts in this series will include the perspectives of scientists, farmers, naturalists, and others. Subscribe to our blog to be notified when new articles are posted.

Featured image: A view across Colvos passage from Paradise Cove at sunset. This is the route we speculate from sightings that the cougar may have swam. photo by: Bianca Perla

Resources for Living with wildlife

Vashon Nature Center has recently learned of several livestock injuries (including to pony, miniature donkey, and pig) that might be due large predators. All animals have survived. We currently have cougar, bear and coyotes on Vashon as well as dogs– all of which can cue into livestock as food. At the center, we have great empathy for the challenges these animals may pose for farmers and pet owners. At the same time, from what we have learned from animal predator experts, the increase in large carnivores seen on the island is unlikely to be a one-time occurrence. It is something that will continue to happen into the future. Because they can swim here, it is impossible to guess when new animals will arrive on the island.

Let’s make a renewed effort as a community to work together and take responsibility for keeping our pets, livestock and ourselves safe. WDFW and other agencies like King County can help us with large carnivores but they cannot do everything. Ultimately and in the long run it’s up to all of us. At the Nature Center we continually discuss how we can help. Here are some things we can offer:

–We’ve created a general information pamphlet on how to be safe in areas with large carnivores that has been vetted by wildlife scientists: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Large-Carnivore-Flyer_20160420.pdf

–Contacts for WDFW agency personnel are available here: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/living-wildlife/

–We are working on an active livestock management guide that will be reviewed by wildlife agency experts as well as local farmers. Expected release is August. Some effective techniques we can recommend right now are available on our cougar page under how do I protect my livestock: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/cougar/

—-We post the 5 most current confirmed sightings of the cougar from our wildlife camera network on our website. We post sightings because they are a good reminder that large carnivores are here. However, we don’t recommend using sightings as a livestock protection tool because large carnivores can change location within a matter of hours: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/wildlife-sightings-highlights/

–Islanders can email or call in sightings of coyotes, bear, cougar and more. Over the long-term these sightings help us assess wildlife use patterns and identify when new animals show up. We share information from this sightings database with WDFW and other agencies including King County and the Land Trust: info@vashonnaturecenter.org

–We are starting a natural history series about the cougar on our blog. It will include stories of personal encounters along with local challenges and success stories in livestock management.  We hope to provide insight into the diversity of experiences this community has had with the cougar over one year and how he has shaped both our fears and triumphs.

A small portion of this work is supported by a King County Service Area grant. A huge thank you to our largely volunteer staff, advisers and our island community that make most of this possible!

Let’s continue to work together to better understand island carnivores and to learn tools and strategies to reduce the number of livestock predations. Islanders are known for standing together to creatively address challenges that come up in our community. Living with wildlife is possible here. Please help us spread the word, share suggestions, have conversations and give neighbors a helping hand if they request it. We want to keep all island animals safe including human, domestic, and wild.

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.