by Bianca Perla
As I left the wilderness and drove back into cell service my phone exploded with texts. The cougar had been killed. Both kids and adults cried at the news, wondering why. Many in our community disagreed about this cougar but most people seemed to agree on one thing, they did not want this cougar’s stay to end in death and the question of why it did still lingers. Here I draw on my experience as VNC director and as an ecologist to attempt to shed light on why.
We live in a pivotal time of change in large carnivore management. For the past 50 years management has been heavily focused on predator control. Because of this we’ve discovered what happens in areas where predators are absent. Consequently, the books of predator ecology and human-wildlife conflict are being re-written. Yet many management frameworks, societal values and public opinions have yet to reflect this.
In the 1990’s, I helped run howling surveys for wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a wolf reintroduction effort concurrent with Yellowstone. Through tracking the effect of these reintroduction programs, we’ve learned that top predators can have trickle down effects called “trophic cascades” that promote everything from healthy song bird populations, to diverse forest understories, to less erosive river courses that make better habitat for fish.
We’ve also learned about how traumatic relocation can be. Yellowstone developed a soft release technique that moved family units together and kept them in an enclosure for months before release into the wild. Otherwise wolves scattered from the stress and many eventually died. Wolf reintroduction has also taught us a lot about wildlife conflict and how societal attitudes about predators can sometimes be harder to change than the ecological landscapes themselves.
In the early 2000’s I worked in Yosemite right at the time when bears discovered they could open cars like a human opens a soda can—curl your paws around the top back edge of a door, peel back and pull. Pop! Treats galore. At first, problem bears were relocated. They either found their way back to the valley, or fled the release site to places no one wanted them to go. They also taught their new bear friends and families how to steal food from humans. Problem bears got three chances and then they were euthanized. Of course, bears did not know or care about this rule of 3.
Then, a light bulb went off in some wildlife biologist’s head. This is not a bear problem, this is a people problem! We need to manage people better. Bear boxes were installed in parking lots. Fines were instituted for leaving food in cars. Garbage cans were retrofitted with locks. This considerably reduced damage to cars. However, some bears persisted. It was so easy and they had become habituated. So, snipers were installed in parking lots to shoot rubber bullets at offending bears. Through this combined effort of human behavior management and aversion techniques bears learned that car theft was not profitable anymore and the cultural practice of popping open cars has been practically eliminated (reduced by 96% since 1998).
As the above story shows, we are learning that conflicts between wildlife and humans can be solved most effectively most of the time by modifying human behavior. However, for years management focus has been on eradicating or relocating “problem” animals. So, the public is usually still conditioned to expect that wildlife managers do something about the animal even if the problems originate in part from human action.
At this crossroads in wildlife management history, the Vashon cougar swam to us. He crawled out onto the shore of an island that had not experienced living with large predators for at least 3 generations. We were not prepared for the cougar. We were already reeling from having to learn about and adapt to the new coyote population, and even that was not going so great.
During my studies at Stanford University I got a rare opportunity to live on the Zuni Indian Reservation. I worked at the Zuni Conservation Project—one of the first tribally run natural resource agencies. One meeting changed my thinking about wildlife management considerably. It was a meeting between farmers and ZCP biologists. Beavers had arrived and were building dams in the same streams that Zuni farmers used to irrigate their crops. This was causing conflict especially when water levels were drawn down too low forcing beavers to abandon their dams.
The conversation started predictably blaming the damn Game and Fish commission for these damn beavers and their damn dams. I could predict the rest of the conversation: we didn’t want them here in the first place, they are inhibiting our ability to irrigate. What if they grow in population and take over all the streams? Let’s get rid of them.
But instead the conversation proceeded: well just because they weren’t here before doesn’t mean they don’t belong here now. They are raising families in this place. They are telling us it’s home. How much water do they need? How do we keep from pumping the water levels below what they need? The decision was made to raise the level of the irrigation pipes that drew from the river so that they would leave a base level of water. Then farmers would work together to help each other shift to using more drought resistant strains of corn and seasonally phased planting. This happened in one meeting. I was floored.
Back to the Vashon cougar: The officials at WDFW did not want to kill this cougar. They tried everything they could to encourage us to change our behaviors so that both the cougar and our domestic animals could be safe. They spent countless hours on the phone personally talking with residents. At VNC’s request they gave a talk to the community about how to live safely and effectively with large carnivores, participated in radio shows and newspaper interviews. They visited residences suggesting improvements when animals were killed and helped us fact check our Co-existing with Large carnivores fact sheet. They also clearly stated in their most recent interview with Vashon Nature Center’s Kathryn True (an article that ran in the Beachcomber) that euthanizing was the most likely option if this cat was caught.
Sadly, although we were in the process of making changes to adapt to this cougar’s presence, we were not quick enough in the transformation for he and us to reap the benefits. Those who did make changes, thank you. Your efforts are not in vain. Most, if not all, confirmed attacks by the cougar on Vashon were in pastures with high densities of brush, or where animals could access treed areas or were pastured in the woods. We can learn from these experiences. In the future, clearing pastures of brush, fencing animals out of woods areas, or getting animals used to night pens before an attack occurs could help us live more safely with mountain lions.
I don’t know how WDFW’s decision to euthanize was finally made. But from my best understanding based on my experience and talking with WDFW it was a decision based on quantitative information (how many kills/interactions), an analysis of alternatives (relocation liability and precedent), and qualitative experience (will people here change their behaviors to help minimize these conflicts or will these conflicts continue?) The bottom line is we can not pass all the blame to WDFW on this. Our community is also responsible for the cougar’s death.
Here’s a quick run down on why relocation isn’t as neat and tidy as it seems. Relocation is highly traumatizing to a wild animal. Often a relocated animal will bolt at release so it is hard to predict where they will end up. Furthermore, a young male cougar like ours would likely run to the safest place, another urban fringe, to get out of the danger zone of grown male cougars unless he feels brave enough to fight to the death.
Out of curiosity, I looked up how many cougars are killed each year due to problems or conflicts with humans, pets, and livestock. I could find no clear numbers for Washington state (although I learned we have about 2100 cougars). I did find the statistics for Oregon. Oregon Fish and Wildlife, over a ten-year period from 2004-2014 euthanized an average of 180 cougars per year to manage wildlife conflict in Oregon. If you want to pick relocation over euthanizing where do you draw the line? That is a lot of cougars to relocate and there are not enough zoos or wildlife havens in the world to take that many.
Considering this and the fact we still have coyotes, possibly a bear, and at some low tide in the future another mountain lion it makes the most sense to try harder to make changes in our techniques and behaviors. We can be innovative, work together to protect livestock and pets, and put social structures in place that support those who find it hard to do this. We can also lobby our political leaders to allow wildlife managers like WDFW to use our tax dollars to assist landowners in implementing tools for conflict prevention.
Ultimately, a road map for living with wildlife is something the community needs to decide on together. How this will be done in the absence of a community council or any other governing body that can make these decisions is a mystery to me. But, if we work towards adapting to rather than resisting our wildlife we can create a future on Vashon where we don’t have to choose between the safety of our domestic animals and the lives of wild ones. No technique (lethal control, relocation, modifying human behavior) is fool-proof and pet owners and livestock owners cannot be expected to be perfect 100% of the time but we can minimize conflicts considerably. A few changes now will lead to many benefits down the road for our peace of mind, for our conscience, and for our quality of life.
An active livestock management guide, a collaborative effort between VNC scientists, wildlife experts and farmers is currently going through review and due out in September. This will help with wildlife protection practices for coyotes, cougars and bears. Stay tuned.
Note: Links point to original sources and scientific papers. Featured photo by: Jesse Bell