Last week, the cougar that had been living on Vashon-Maury islands for the past year was killed by a state wildlife officer. Since then, islanders have expressed a range of emotions — from relief to sadness to anger — with some also considering lessons for the future.
News of the cougar’s death began circulating last Tuesday, and that evening Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) spokesman Kim Chandler confirmed the news, indicating that a lot of thought went into the decision to kill the animal — an outcome members of his agency had hoped to avoid.
“This is really a very distasteful thing for Fish and Wildlife to have to deal with,” he said. “We are not really pleased with the outcome, but circumstances pretty much dictated that this needed to be done.”
While wildlife officials originally believed the cougar would eat only deer, ultimately it killed several types of animals: alpaca, sheep and donkeys among them. Chandler said he did not keep a tally of the reported predations, but he believes the cougar was responsible, with certainty, for killing six animals that were livestock or pets; another five or six predations were “highly likely” the result of the cougar, and “the jury was still out” on several others.
Wildlife officials attempted to trap the cougar at least four times since it killed two alpacas at the north end last December, but were not successful. Just a few days before killing the cougar, they set the trap at the home of Karen and Herb Beck on Cove Road. The Becks had experienced an attack that injured their miniature donkeys late last month. Their vet believed the cougar had attacked the animals, but a visiting WDFW wildlife officer suspected coyotes, Karen Beck said at the time. Last week, Herb Beck said the female donkey needed to be euthanized because of her wounds, despite repeat vet visits, and they buried her Monday, Aug, 7. Just a few days later, either late Thursday or early Friday, the cougar attacked and killed the Becks’ remaining donkey. Wildlife officials set the trap up on the Becks’ property on Friday, Aug. 11, but the cougar did not return. However, it did travel down near Cemetery Road, where it killed two other donkeys over the weekend. The officer retrieved the trap from the Becks and set it up at the site of the most predations. Last Tuesday morning, the owner reported that the cougar had entered the trap, and a WDFW officer returned to Vashon, shot the cougar and removed it from the island, Chandler said. The animal weighed 145 pounds and was between 2 1/2 and 3 years old.
“He was in great shape,” Chandler added. “He was a really good looking cat, a youngster.”
The news of the cat’s death brought an outpouring of opinion and emotion from islanders, some of whom who had been deeply afraid of the mountain lion, others of whom had been concerned for their livestock or had suffered losses to it, and others who believed passionately that islanders should be able to coexist with the cougar and other top predators.
Herb Beck, who said his male donkey had refused to go into its enclosure once the female had died, is among those pleased the animal is no longer on the island. Beck believes that the cougar was responsible for both attacks on his animals and also said he believes it is not realistic to expect island livestock owners to secure their animals in a barn or other enclosure every single night, year in and year out.
“I am just glad the cougar is gone, and I hope he is, in fact, dead,” he said. “He had a taste for livestock.”
Bianca Perla, who heads the Vashon Nature Center, is among those holding a different perspective. In an email, phone call and blog post, she expressed her thoughts from a wildlife management perspective.
“It is impossible to describe the value that was lost to all the people of Washington, to the natural system on which we rely and to the genetic heritage of the cougar population with this young, healthy cougar male’s death,” she wrote.
She noted that the island was caught in the crossroads of old and new ideas about managing wildlife. Currently, there are three options for managing “problem” wildlife, she said: killing the animal, relocating it or changing human behavior.
“It (changing human behavior) is not perfect, but it is the most successful,” she said, speaking about those options.
She thanked the livestock owners who have made changes in their practices and said those changes, such as building night enclosures, were not in vain, as there are still coyotes on Vashon and potentially a black bear.
Looking forward, she said she hopes islanders will continue to make changes to keep their animals safe, noting that it has been at least three generations since a top predator lived on the island, but it could easily happen again.
“All of us were taken by surprise. We just did not have time for this guy,” she said. “Hopefully, we will be better prepared for the next one.”
Many islanders have expressed anger at wildlife officials for killing the cougar, but Chandler said, ultimately, relocation was not an option. Agency policy, with some leeway to take into account animal husbandry practices, dictates that once an animal starts killing livestock or pets, it will be killed.
“He has a propensity for killing livestock,” Chandler said about Vashon’s cougar. “The likelihood is there that he is going to continue do that elsewhere.”
When the WDFW’s carnivore biologist Brian Kertson came to the island to speak about cougars last fall, he addressed the difficulties of relocation, noting that often the animals travel considerable distances to return to the territory they were removed from. Additionally, he said that relocated animals can have great difficulty finding food and water in their new home and that because the large cats are so territorial, one cat will often kill or injure another in a fight for the territory.
Cougar relocation, at least in this region, appears to be rare. British Columbia no longer relocates carnivores. Additionally, spokespeople for the state wildlife agencies in Oregon and Idaho say officials there do not relocate mountain lions for the same reasons Kertson indicated. Mike Keckler, communications director of Idaho Fish and Game, said that the agency routinely relocates bears and moose with success, but cats, given their high degree of territoriality, are a different story. Moreover, he said, most of the good mountain lion territory is occupied, and if a young male is introduced into territory of another male, the older tom will not allow it.
“The (younger) cat won’t stand much of a chance,” he said. “It is not a good death.”
Perla, too, addressed relocation, noting that it is often extremely stressful for the animal involved and that a young male cougar, such as the one on Vashon, would likely run to the safest place, “another urban fringe,” to avoid adult male cougars.
Perla said she researched how many cougars are killed each year due to conflicts with humans or pets. She could not find the answer for Washington, but in Oregon, from 2004 to 2014, the fish and wildlife department killed 180 cougars per year.
“Where do you draw the line?” she wrote. “That is a lot of cougars to relocate and there are not enough zoos or wildlife havens in the world to take that many.”
And so, Perla said, that brings the conversation back to managing human behavior, which on Vashon will need to be a community endeavor with innovation, collaboration and support for those who find it hard to make changes. Next month, the nature center will release a livestock management guide, created though a collaboration among nature center scientists, wildlife experts and farmers, meant to help.
Chandler, too, stressed that islanders will still be contending with predators now that the cougar is gone.
“Realistically, coyotes are your worst problem right now,” he said. “And you know, the next low tide, another cougar could come on board.”