Mountain Lion in Port Townsend a matter of when, not if

Uneasy Chair

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Pictures of a possible cougar kill at Fort Worden stoked Jefferson County’s rumor-mill last week. Whether the carcass was left by coyotes, cougars or collies, this is a good time for us to get some clarity about nature, red in tooth and claw.

Port Townsend is infested with deer and long has been, which means we can expect a mountain lion or two in our yards and streets.

The question isn’t whether they’re here. They will be if they aren’t already.

The real question is this: how tolerant will we be of a 100-pound obligate carnivore that hits 45mph and has been proven able to take down a healthy 600-pound bull elk?

Cougar attacks are rare. But they do happen in places just like this, so why not take this alert-but-calm moment to think before the time for emoting arrives?

Puma concolor (cat of one color) was once the widest-distributed carnivore on the continent, living in every ecosystem from southeastern cypress swamps to arid desert peaks, from the Yukon to the Andes. They’re incredibly adaptable.

Bounty hunters all but exterminated them by the 1960s, but the post-bounty-era rebound has been robust, with cougars refilling and recolonizing turf, feasting on out-of-control deer populations.

As cougar recovered, biologists began stunning the West with radio-collar maps: mountain lions were sleeping 10 feet from busy park trails in San Diego, bedding down in gullies in the heart of Portland and crossing the campus of Stanford University.

In 1992, an idling cabby found one in the parking garage of the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria, just a hundred feet or so from the tea room where luminaries from Queen Elizabeth on down stop in to poke out their pinkies and sip tea.

Not every instance is as funny as the Empress mountain lion. The rare instances when they turn their eye from deer to humans end horribly, often for both the person and the cat.

So, which sort of cougar country is Jefferson County?

Are we an Old Testament, dominion-of-man kind of place in which “terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky” (Genesis 9:2)?

Are we a place that reveres the first families of this peninsula – from plankton through orca and lichen through cougar - and accepts risks and costs to live side-by-side with them?

Or are we a place that will mix and match, tolerating the disappearance of dogs and cats, but occasionally using a heavy hand to rid cityscapes of the mountain lion?

What we can’t do is pretend nothing bad ever happens to people or animals.

I spent about five years, on and off, thinking and writing about this and what I found is not comforting, though it’s no cause for panic, either.

As a journalist working in eastern Washington and North Idaho in the 1990s, I noticed an increasing number of attacks. Teaming up with another writer, I convinced a Seattle publisher to buy a book that tried to explain why there had been as many mountain lion attacks on humans in one decade as in the 100 preceding years.

We came up with no simple answer other than this: Late 20th century development in the West coincided with rapid cougar population growth. More opportunities for interaction meant more attacks.

There was otherwise no archetypal narrative binding the hundreds of attack stories. In all their variations, attacks happened when cats and people crossed paths in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Beyond that, the picture is complex. Wildlife and wild lands agencies urge us to protect children by sticking together on the trail, but 16 of 19 children attacked in the decade we studied were in groups. On the other hand, in the 1990s attacks we found that no child attacked in the company of an adult had died. In fact, rescuers, armed with sticks, rocks or even bare hands, are almost never hurt. But if you’re the hapless park ranger who dares speak that fact, you’ll be lawsuit roadkill.

The other advice, “avoid cougar country after dark,” is nonsensical. There have been far more attacks in the daylight than after dark. That’s probably more a result of humans’ preferences for day hiking than cougar hunting patterns. Put enough tourists on the trail and something may happen.

A few ideas Jefferson County law enforcement and state wildlife managers in Jefferson County should consider:

There are places where it’s irresponsible to move into the woods, fence in some chickens and llamas and indulge the the idea that you are farming. If you lose livestock in the near-wild, is the state or county obligated to kill a cougar that hunts what it finds in its longtime ambit?

Are there are places in Jefferson County where cougars can just be cougars and we go there at our own risk? Olympic National Park and the federal forestlands around it aren’t in need of cougar control. They’re a good place for humans to re-learn their place in the natural order, which means accepting risk.

And are there places where cougars don’t belong?

A cougar that allows itself to be seen and, worse, confronts humans, is a higher risk. Cougars are not endangered nor even threatened. Killing that cat won’t put the species at any risk.

How terrific if we were to be an exceptional place that gives support to wildlife officers when a righteous killing is needed. How sad if we turn out to be one of those towns that indulges the worst fantasy of all: the transplant.

Live TV loves the story of the sober officer tranquilizing and caging an urban cougar and driving into the sunset to set the cat free to romp with chipmunks and butterflies. In fact, the cat will be extremely vulnerable while it recovers from being drugged. Dropped in unfamiliar territory, it will have a very difficult time feeding itself. And when discovered by the cat into whose territory it has been dumped, the intruder will be stalked and killed or badly injured.

So, before there’s an emergency, it’s a good time to make calm decisions about what we will and will not tolerate.

Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader. He conceived and co-wrote “Cat Attacks: True Stories and Hard Lessons from Cougar Country,” for Sasquatch Books, a Random House-owned publisher based in Seattle.

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