Islander Jesse Bell snapped this first photo of the island’s last visitor-turned-resident cougar. If another cougar has made its way to the island, no one has come forward with photos yet. (Jesse Bell Photo)

Islander Jesse Bell snapped this first photo of the island’s last visitor-turned-resident cougar. If another cougar has made its way to the island, no one has come forward with photos yet. (Jesse Bell Photo)

Cougar sightings reported, but remain unconfirmed

Two people reported separate accounts of seeing a cougar on the island last week, though presently their sightings are unverified.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, islander Jeff Larson said he was leaving his home on the north end when he spotted a young cougar across the street about 50 to 100 feet away.

“It was interesting and caught my eye right off the bat,” he said.

He said he was in the car and pulling out of his driveway in the late afternoon when he saw the animal in his parking lot hill neighborhood. He described the cat as being one-half to two-thirds the size of a mature cougar, noting it had been “pondering and taking its time” as it headed toward the ferry.

Afterward, he said that he called the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to report the sighting, but was transferred a few times and ultimately disconnected.

The following day, Margy Heldring, who lives on Maury, said she had just pulled into her driveway after 2 p.m. when she saw an unfamiliar animal lurking around the perimeter of her property.

“I looked up, and I thought, ‘What is that?’” she said, “and then I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s a cougar.’”

Heldring rushed inside with her 13-week-old puppy and grabbed a camera to snap a photo, but when she looked again, the animal was gone.

“There’s absolutely no doubt it was a cougar. I have to say, it was unnerving,” she said, adding that she was concerned for the safety of her dog and grandchildren.

Heldring said that the response she received after sharing her encounter online was reassuring.

“I really appreciate our neighborhood again and our island,” she said. “People have been really responsive, and it’s good to know we’re watching out for each other and our animals.”

Bianca Perla, director of the Vashon Nature Center, said that while it is possible a cougar has arrived on Vashon, there is no way to corroborate the recent sightings without a body of proof that would include tracks, scat or kill sites.

“We haven’t received any hard physical evidence like a photo from people who have seen a cougar or [from] our wildlife camera network,” she said.

According to information prepared by the nature center, Vashon is a notably safe, temporary habitat for young male cougars growing to maturity.

“I think the best thing to do is always expect one is here because it could swim over any time, and the more we know how to handle ourselves around cougars, the less fear there is,” said Perla.

In a July blog post, Kathryn True, outreach and program manager for the Nature Center, wrote that four sightings of mountain lions had been reported in recent months, but were also unconfirmed.

Perla noted that like with all large carnivores native to the region, such as black bears and coyotes, it is important to exercise caution, with a caveat: The experience of coming across powerful animals safely can be “incredible.”

“We might be one of the last generations to see these cats in this area, so enjoy it,” she said, noting that cougars do not mean harm if they make themselves known to people.

“Generally, if a cougar shows itself to you, you’re not in danger because they’re stealth hunters. If you see them, the game is up.”

Crucially, she noted that under no circumstance should anyone run away from a cougar, and instead advises those who see one to back away slowly while maintaining direct eye contact with the animal.

Perla said that one takeaway from the island’s last resident cougar, which was killed by officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2017 after killing livestock, was how difficult the circumstance was — a moment when it became necessary to intervene despite many calls to leave the wild animal be.

“We weren’t prepared. We just weren’t prepared,” she said. “We need to start thinking about Vashon as cougar habitat. These animals are just trying to make a living.”

— Susan Riemer also provided reporting for this story.

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