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When a Cougar Comes to Town

A file photo of a cougar, or mountain lion. The animals can grow to be between 100 and 200 pounds.

A file photo of a cougar, or mountain lion. The animals can grow to be between 100 and 200 pounds. Shutterstock

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There have been reports of a big cat lurking in Washington’s capital city. A state agency is looking into the sightings.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — There may be a 100-plus pound cougar prowling in the parklands and neighborhood side streets here in the state capital.

The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife received two reports, one on Aug. 19 and another within the past week, from residents who believe they have seen a cougar in the southeast part of town, in an area where the city’s 153-acre Watershed Park is located.

Brent Cato is one of the Olympia residents who believes that he saw a cougar. He said he spotted it outside his house late at night and thought it was a large dog at first. Then, as he took a few steps toward the animal, he said it appeared to startle.

"It stopped and looked right at me and that’s when I saw its ears go pin back," Cato said. "Then it kind of dawned on me," he added. "It turned and went to take off. The way it galloped and when I watched its shoulders go up, I was like 'holy crap, that’s a cougar.'"

Cato hasn't seen a cougar before in the wild, but said he is familiar with their appearance and that he got a pretty good look at the animal in the street light. He estimates it was about 100 to 110 pounds. 

“It was not a small creature," he said.

A cougar around the size Cato estimates may not be fully grown. Adult males can commonly weigh between 120 and 160 pounds. Wildlife biologists last year caught and tagged a nine year-old cougar in rural northeast Washington that weighed in at whopping 197 pounds.

The fish and wildlife department has not confirmed the sightings in Olympia but says it is investigating. The agency has installed equipment in the park to try to attract the animal with a mix of cow blood and fish oil and to capture images of it on a trail camera—if it is in fact there.

A sign at one of the entrances to Olympia's watershed park on Aug. 29, 2019 cautions visitors that people have reported recent cougar sightings in the area. (Bill Lucia/Route Fifty) 

Becky Bennett, a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, said Thursday that the department still had not verified that there was, or still is, a cougar in town and had not received any new reports of sightings.

“If there was a cougar, there's a good chance that it has already moved on,” she said earlier in the week. 

Aaron Wirsing, a professor at the University of Washington who studies large carnivores, offered a similar assessment, saying that cougars tend to be transient in urban settings. “I suspect it's an animal on the move,” he said.

“Once they start following a linear stand of trees or something, their tendency is just to sort of keep going with it,” Wirsing added. “Which can then land them in some pretty awkward spots, like a neighborhood in Olympia.”

Bennett said the way Fish and Wildlife handles cougars, which are also called mountain lions, that turn up in residential areas varies depending on the situation.

If one of the animals is menacing people, livestock, or pets, or if it is seen out and about during the middle of the day—rather than its more usual dawn, dusk, or overnight hunting hours—then the department will likely take action to track, trap and euthanize the cougar.

At other times, cougars don’t show any signs of aggression, but end up in populated areas that they can’t find their way out of. In these cases, Fish and Wildlife might opt to relocate the animal rather than kill it.

Bennett said there’s a similar relocation process for bears that typically involves bringing the animals to remote forest lands, far from the suburbs and cities. 

“Oftentimes we're not going to trap and relocate a cougar because they just tend to move out of the area,” Bennett said. “It's a little bit different with bears. Bears stick around a little bit more.”

Watershed Park is a somewhat wild place by city park standards, with trails that cut between towering Douglas Firs, cedars and big leaf maples. A thick layer of ferns and other dense undergrowth carpets many sections of the forest floor.

In recent months, coyotes have been spotted near the park and heard yelping on occasion.

One of the trails in Olympia's Watershed Park. (Bill Lucia/Route Fifty)

Olympia has about 52,000 residents and is located 60 miles southwest of Seattle. The city is letting Fish and Wildlife take the lead in dealing with the possible cougar. Kellie Purce Braseth, a city spokesperson, said Olympia is not equipped to track and manage wildlife. 

“We have a fire department and a police department,” she said. “Neither of them respond to wild animal sightings.”

"Our police have deescalation training,” she added. “But I don't think it'll work on a cougar."

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare—experts say the stealthy big cats generally try to avoid people. But there were two deadly incidents in the Pacific Northwest last year.

A cougar in Washington attacked two mountain bikers, killing one of them, on a remote dirt road near the town of North Bend, about 30 miles east of Seattle. Another woman was found dead after a suspected cougar attack along a hiking trail near Mt. Hood in Oregon.

While his research doesn’t focus on the size of the state’s cougar population, Wirsing said figures in recent state reports and discussions he’s had with wildlife biologists suggest the number of mountain lions in Washington has been fairly stable over the past decade.

Cougars have a reputation for being kind of hard to track and count. But Fish and Wildlife says that studies indicate there are about 2,000 of them in Washington that are over 18 months old.

“There's no evidence that cougars are on the rise, pushing them into urban areas, that I could find,” Wirsing said.

The animals are dispersed around the state, and generally prefer habitats that provide good cover for stalking. Most eat deer and elk, but they sometimes prey on smaller animals.

When a person encounters a cougar, some general advice is to face it, talk to it firmly and look as large as possible. Running or quick movements can cause the animal to attack. If the cougar acts aggressive, shouting, throwing objects at it, or using bear spray is recommended. If it attacks, a person’s best option is to fight back.

"You're fairly lucky if you do end up seeing a cougar,” Bennett said. “They don't like to be seen by people and we are not on their menu.”

Cato, the resident who reported one of the cougar sightings, says it does not make him nervous if the animal is in town. “I kind of wanted to go grab my laser pointer and see if I could play with it,” he joked. 

"Cougars are around," he added, "It is what it is."

This post was updated shortly after publication with comments from one of the residents who reported a cougar sighting.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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