EO Media Group File
Oregon’s cougar population is growing to the point that the big cats are dispersing into new territory in the state’s Central Coast Range. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is hearing of more sightings and damage complaints along the coast, and will take a closer look at the problem by putting tracking collars on 10 adult cougars this fall.
The work will take place in the Alsea Wildlife Management Unit, which includes parts of Benton and Lincoln counties. Wildlife biologists have studied cougar home ranges, population and diet in the Cascade Mountains and in Eastern Oregon, but not in the Coast Range.
Oregon has approximately 6,400 cougars, perhaps 40 to 50 times the number of wolves in the state. An estimated 950 cougars live in ODFW’s Coast and North Cascades Zone, which includes the Alsea study area.
Department biologists will work with volunteer trackers who have hounds and will tree cougars in the study area. They’ll be darted, immobilized and fitted with GPS tracking collars. Location data will be used calculate the cougars’ home range and habitat selection.
Researchers also will use specially trained dogs to find cougar scat, which will be analyzed for diet information, and to estimate the cougar population size and density. Cougars primarily eat deer, elk and small mammals in the wild, but sometimes follow prey into developed areas. A recent Facebook post from a La Grande, Ore., resident said cougars had killed two deer in a yard across the street from her house.
ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said cougar mortality numbers provide a reading on human-cougar conflict. She said 17 cougars were killed in the Alsea unit — the study area — in 2008. The number jumped to 35 in 2016 and 27 have been killed so far this year. The 2016 mortality figure includes 16 cougars killed for livestock depredation; the rest were shot by hunters or hit by vehicles.
None of the Alsea unit cougars were killed for what Dennehy called “public safety” reasons, but ODFW in recent years has trapped and put down cougars in residential areas elsewhere, she said.
Cougar collaring was set to begin in late October. The department intended to continue until 10 adults were collared or until April 1, 2019. The GPS will provide location data for 17 months.
It’s legal to hunt cougars in Oregon, but ODFW prefers hunters don’t shoot a collared cougar if it can be avoided. If it happens, hunters must contact ODFW and return the collar so data can be retrieved and the collar reused. Hunters also must do the normal check-in that’s required when they take a cougar or bear in Oregon.
The research is funded by federal grants from the Wildlife Restoration Act and by donations from Oregon Wildlife Foundation and the Oregon Hunters Association, according to ODFW.