The cause of death for the cougar found at Squalicum Beach may remain a mystery, but it does provide us with a few clues about cougars and their behavior. Cougars use greenbelts, corridors, and riparian areas to move within their home ranges, even those immediately adjacent to residential development and yet they rarely make the news. The fact that this cougar was not spotted or reported until it was found dead shows us that peaceful coexistence is happening and it's happening just minutes from downtown Bellingham.
Even though we have an estimated 2,000 cougars in Washington State, a vast majority of people will never see a cougar in the wild. A cougar's livelihood depends upon them being secretive and the ability for cougars to conceal themselves is critical for acquiring food. A cougar must approach its prey unseen and undetected at a relatively close distance before launching an attack. If given the chance, a deer could out run a cougar, so it's all about the element of surprise.
Squalicum Beach may have been the quietest and least populated place this cougar had come across in a while. Plus, the greenbelt leading up to the beach is an ideal spot to prey upon deer and raccoon, but it is also a very popular place for joggers and bikers. The reality is that increased human population translates into an increasing number of cougar interactions with humans. Washington's human population has increased 30 percent since 1990 and it is expected to reach 8.2 million people by 2030. The most notable impacts this increase has is loss of wildlife habitat. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates approximately 27 kilometers of wildlife habitat is lost each year to human development, making corridors and greenbelts the only suitable habitat left for some of these large cats.
So what should you do if you encounter one of these elusive animals? "First and foremost," says Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, "avoid any potential interaction by traveling together and making noise to let wildlife know you are approaching. Cougars and any other wildlife will avoid you at all costs." If you do have a sighting, stop, stand tall and absolutely do not run. If you have children or other people with you, stay together in a group because that makes you more intimidating. Do not break eye contact with the cougar. Remember, their livelihood depends on them not being seen, not being detected. Maintaining eye contact establishes that you are aware of their presence and may reduce the chance of the animal advancing. Make yourself as big as possible, yell and wave your arms and, without putting yourself in a vulnerable position, throw rocks and sticks at the cougar. By making yourself as physically imposing as possible, you help remind the cougar that you are not their typical prey. This will thwart off 99.9 percent of every encounter that takes place. For the fraction of a percentage of those encounters where the cougar still comes at you, fight back aggressively! People who have been attacked by cougars and have fought back have fared much better than those who haven't.
It is important to recognize where you live, work and recreate, and for many of you, that's in cougar country. When you are in cougar country, be sure to always be aware of your surroundings, be mentally prepared to potentially encounter a cougar. Don't be paranoid, just vigilant. Take off the head sets and put away the cell phones. Teach your kids how to behave when wildlife are encountered and don't let them wander too far away from adult supervision. Absolutely, positively, do not feed wildlife. If your are feeding deer, raccoons or other potential cougar prey you are indirectly inviting cougars over for a meal as well. Ultimately, expect coexistence. Just because you see a cougar at the edge of your property at dusk does not mean that cougar is, or will be a problem.
Cougars are a tough, adaptive, top-tier carnivore and they are extremely important to Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Habitat conservation, smart residential growth and increasing public outreach and education are the keys to the cougar's continued existence in a rapidly changing world. Cougars and people can and do coexist, much better than most of us realize.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rose Oliver is the North Cascades field coordinator for Western Wildlife Outreach. For more information on what to do in your community or in the wild to lessen your chance of a negative encounter with wildlife, go online to westernwildlife.org.