*Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran on the Vashon Nature Center’s blog. The Beachcomber is running it in two parts. Last week’s issue included myths one through five. This week features myths six through 10.
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, staff hear many questions and concerns about the cougar. The center’s volunteer outreach manager, Kathryn True, came up with a list of the most commonly held misconceptions and asked 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 the Coexisting with Large Predators fact sheet, or WDFW’s Living with Wildlife Cougar pages at wdfw.wa.gov/living/cougars. Questions about cougar management should be referred to WDFW, as this department is responsible for the management of cougars in the state. Vashon Nature Center is a research and education center. It fields questions about living with wildlife and collects sightings as part of the island’s natural history record, but does not manage wildlife.
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 the 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 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 a 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.
— Kathryn True is an islander and freelance writer who volunteers as outreach manager for Vashon Nature Center.