Recent cougar sightings near Odell and Cascade Locks have sparked fears of an attack against humans, but Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials said those concerns are largely unfounded.
"We have no documentation in recent history that shows anyone even receiving a stitch from an encounter with a mountain lion," said Don Whittaker, cougar program coordinator for the ODFW Portland headquarters.
He said the population of great cats has been on the increase since the 1960s when the Oregon legislature repealed the state bounty system that is believed to have lowered the cougar count to about 200 statewide. After Oregon citizens voted in a ban against use of dogs to hunt the giant cats in 1994, Whittaker said the number of sightings has increased dramatically. Although the secretive nature of the animals makes it difficult to gain an exact total of their numbers, Whittaker said ODFW experts believe there are between 3,000-5,000 cougars roaming statewide.
Because of that population increase, the legislature approved a law in 2001 that allows citizens to kill a cougar without a permit outside of regular hunting seasons if a personal safety issue arises. By Oregon statute, landowners may also kill cougars by any means if the cat attacks livestock or domestic animals on their private property.
However, Whittaker said ODFW reserves the right to examine cougar deaths in those cases to determine whether the lethal action was warranted.
"Just seeing a mountain lion does not constitute a threatening situation," he said.
According to an ODFW publication, cougars, like other large predators, are a solitary animal that can be dangerous but tries to avoid contact with humans. Although they occasionally stray into inhabited areas, ODFW said cougars primarily stay in wilderness zones where deer, elk, bighorn sheep and smaller animals are plentiful for hunting.
With a better understanding of mountain lions and their habitat, ODFW believes people can minimize potential problems. The state agency recommends that citizens take the following precautions when outdoors:
* Do not hike alone: go in groups, with adults supervising children.
* Do not approach a mountain lion: most cats will try to avoid a confrontation if given a way to escape.
* Do not run from a cougar: running may stimulate the instinct to chase. Stand and face the animal, making eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up so they don't panic and run but make that movement without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.
* Do all you can to appear larger: raise your arms, open your jacket, throw stones or whatever you can without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak in a firm, loud voice.
* Fight back if attacked: because a lion tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Use rocks, sticks, jackets, garden tools, camping gear and your hands to fend off the attack.
More Cougar Precautions
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said people living near cougar habitat should not feed deer, raccoons or other wildlife in their yard because that action would inadvertently attract mountain lions, which prey upon these animals for food.
Further protection measures include penning up livestock at night in outbuildings and bringing household pets inside or placing them in a kennel with a secure top.
Dense and low-lying vegetation can also provide a threat if it attracts deer and other wildlife and allows a cougar to approach a walkway or children's play area unseen.
Any face-to-face encounter with a cougar, or its killing of livestock or pets, should be reported immediately to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Mid-Columbia District Office in The Dalles serves Hood River County and can be reached at 541-298-4993.