Sightings of Columbia County cougars reveal mixed opinions
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife experts say they don't have a count of how many cougars are in Columbia County, but they know they're out there.
ODFW has been tracking and reporting sightings of mountain lions, mountain lions, also commonly known as cougars, more heavily, more heavily over the past year. The agency estimates more than 6,400 cougars live in Oregon, according to data published in a 2017 cougar management plan.
Noting a spike in reports of cougar sightings, ODFW says the wildcat population is likely growing, but the agency lacks concrete data on cougar populations in specific regions.
"Sometimes reports come in pulses, or they're related to current events," Kurt Licence, a wildlife biologist with ODFW said. "We know the cougar population is growing and we at times will see young cats come into more urban areas."
Licence noted that ODFW agents really only get a sense of cougar populations from hunting tags or harvest samples. The state allows cougars to be hunted with quota limits, and generally allows for the killing of a cougar if it is believed to be endangering someone, but how best to manage the wildcats remains a point of contention for Oregon residents.
"A key objective in Oregon's cougar management strategy involves minimizing conflict between humans and cougars," ODFW agents noted in the 2017 management plan.
An informal survey conducted by ODFW in 2002 of 360 Oregon residents from six different counties found that most respondents believed cougars should be left alone, unless they pose a serious threat to human life.
"Oregonians support a robust cougar population and nearly 64 percent of respondents said they believe occasional contact with cougars should be accepted as part of living in the Pacific Northwest," the report states, but noted "a high proportion of the same respondents" who said they'd want the animal killed if it appeared in their neighborhoods.
In Columbia County, at least a handful of residents, from unincorporated Scappoose to Rainier, have reported hearing or seeing the large wild cats since fall 2018.
Carol Bassie, who lives in Spitzenberg about five miles outside Scappoose city limits, said she awoke to the screams and yowls of a cougar last Sunday, Feb. 17.
"Last night I heard a cougar screaming in the woods," she said Monday. "That was the first time I ever heard a cougar."
She described a loud, sustained scream that rivaled anything she'd heard before.
A few months prior, back in spring, she recalled seeing an animal moving through brush outside her window.
"Some of the tall bushes were really moving," she noted. "I saw an animal with a buff-colored short fur and it had an angular look to it."
Two years earlier, she noted losing two hens inexplicably, only to find distinctive chicken feathers from her birds in the hills near her home during a walk.
While Bassie's is the most recent account of a cougar, it's not the only report.
In early January, Tyler Lessard Eubanks of Warren also noted a neighbor's report of a cougar roaming where Millard Road meets North Morse Road.
"I had just pulled out of my driveway and a car in front of me abruptly stopped and jumped out of her car," Eubanks stated in a message to the Spotlight. She said her neighbor, who is deaf, spelled out the words of what she had just seen run in front of her car.
Eubanks took to social media to notify her neighbors and fellow county residents.
Wildlife experts advise anyone who encounters a cougar not to run, but rather make themselves appear big by standing tall, making eye contact, and raising or clapping hands if needed to get the animal to retreat.
Oregon cougars made international headlines last year when state officials announced they believed a cougar likely attacked and killed a Gresham woman as she was hiking in the Welches area.
"We record all cougar mortalities and complaints," Rick Swart of ODFW noted, but said there is no firm estimate on how many cougars might be living in Columbia County.