“Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!” Remember in the Wizard of Oz how Dorothy and her three companions (four if you count Toto), chanted this phrase in the creepy forest while looking over their shoulders nervously for certain doom?
Sometimes people who have moved out to their own little piece of paradise in a rural area feel this same trepidation, particularly after hearing a neighbor or news story about a predator encounter. It’s important to consider that we now live in someone else’s neighborhood, namely that of our rich Washington wildlife. This includes some significant predators. But don’t worry too much. With knowledge and good habits, we can peacefully coexist with these animals.
Worries over these big toothy critters include indirect effects, such as losing livestock or pets, or seeing damage to infrastructure from bears getting into garbage or destroying bee hives. These also may be sparked by fears of direct encounters with these animals. Here I will present a few facts, stories, and some links to good resources.
Predators tend to have large territories, and will continually cross ownerships in their quest for survival. This means that the home ranges of predators usually cover far more land than our average small forest landowner. If you see one, it probably is either passing through, or has found just what it needs there for a limited time (See cougar story below).
We have a rich variety of meat eaters across our landscape, with varying species and populations depending on where you are. Black bears, cougar, wolves, coyote, bobcat and fox all live with us, and sometimes thrive on our forest lands. Their life histories require killing of prey, and the size of prey generally correlates with the size of the predator. For example, coyotes eat mice and voles, cougars eat deer.
Mostly, we coexist with these animals and never even know they are there. But sometimes we notice. Smaller predators generally cause small scale problems, such as the occasional loss of pets (cats and small dogs) or small livestock (such as chickens). Those causing the deepest consternation for landowners are the larger predators, particularly black bear, and cougar. (Wolves are large and wide ranging, sometimes taking range livestock, but rarely causing problems for small forest landowners or threatening people directly. Hence I won’t discuss wolves here. Check the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website for useful information about dealing with wolves and all sorts of other wildlife.)
Cougars occur in most forested regions of our state, in varying populations, but basically can occur wherever prey, mostly deer, occur. Some of the Puget Sound islands are currently without cougars, perhaps due to historic extirpation, but one recently appeared on Vashon Island and has been quite the phenomenon there.
Cougar observations are rare, and those of us who have been fortunate enough to see one in the wild remember it vividly. Even rarer events are attacks on people (and pets) but they do occur. Precautions can be taken, particularly if active cougar sign is about. They are outlined in the WDFW publication, Living with Cougars. Remember, cougars prey primarily on deer. If you choose to feed deer, you may also be inadvertently attracting cougars.
I heard a landowner near Spokane tell me a story from his neighborhood of part time landowners, (where he lives full time), with seven deer feeders. These were the barrel variety with a timer that causes the noisy machine to come on at a set time. The deer would come running for the spray of delicious corn. Needless to say, the neighborhood has a healthy population of resident whitetail deer. There is also a resident mother cougar and her cubs. Nearly everyone had seen this big cat and several youngsters following her around. The neighborhood alarm was substantial. It was exciting but probably dangerous for all concerned, the cougar in particular. To my knowledge, the situation has not changed at the time of this writing.
Here is an interesting story about cougars from by my good friend, Don McIvor. He provided this transcript and wonderful video to add to this topic.
I received a trail camera for Christmas a few years ago and put it out on our 20-acre property near Twisp, Wash., in early January. A fresh snowfall blanketed the ground, wiping the forest floor clean and leaving few clues as to a good spot to mount the camera. I found a faint set of tracks, almost completely obscured by the new snow, and strapped the camera to a nearby tree. The photograph here (see above) is the very first image captured by the camera; you could have knocked me over with a feather! What followed was about a 10-day visit from this female cougar and her three cubs. I repositioned the camera to a nearby spot where the snow was so compacted I couldn’t distinguish the tracks. Turns out this area was immediately adjacent to a deer the mother had killed, and the packed-down snow was the cubs’ playground. I managed to document much of the visit with video and still photography. This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event and I am pleased our small property could host the big cats, even if only for the short-term. This rare glimpse into the lives of these graceful creatures also illustrates our property’s role in the broader landscape where we help to maintain populations of animals that need large blocks of habitat to survive.
Black bears are big, cute, roly-poly, cartoonish characters; and are also the other big predator we may encounter on our small forest lands. Most of us have bears about. They are omnivorous but opportunistic predators, and will eat most anything they can find, including the occasional deer fawn or elk calf. They tend to be solitary and shy, avoiding humans whenever possible. They can be aggressive towards humans, but it is very rare and usually associated with a mother bear with cubs. Black bears are a game animal and may be taken during legal hunting seasons.
Black bears are famous as scavengers and will take advantage of free food. Avoid leaving pet food or garbage out in bear country. Bird feeders can also lead to bear attention. If bears find your feeders, take them down until the bear moves on. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a saying among wildlife control folks. Habituating bears to human food will lead to trouble, especially for the bear. “Problem” bears are sometimes relocated by WDFW but this is a last resort in situations where the bear has become habitual to a location and human safety is at issue.
Trail cameras are an excellent tool for viewing wildlife on your property. They are a subject for a future article!
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent source of information on these critters in its Living with Wildlife Series
The message here is, if you live in wild lands, expect wild animals. Live accordingly.
And please send me good stories and photos!
By Ken Bevis, DNR stewardship wildlife biologist, Washington Department of Natural Resources, firstname.lastname@example.org