There is nothing like a large predatory and carnivorous animal to get the imagination flowing. Many of us have become accustomed to living life sitting comfortably as the highest member of the food chain. When there happens to be the presence of another large mammal in “our” territory it naturally produces thoughts of competition and defense. I’ve had to consider my own feelings about such issues with the sighting of a cougar in Cape Disappointment by a park ranger within the last two weeks. One sighting is one thing, but two partially eaten fawns that have been found lately is another.
In my short life I have determined that perception is often reality. In the case of a cougar at “our” state park my perception has changed but the reality has remained the same. After first hearing the ranger’s account of seeing the cougar cross the road in front of him I was amazed, excited, and I have to admit, I felt threatened. I didn’t feel safe walking the trails alone anymore. I felt like I was being watched when I left the interpretive center in the evenings. As I mentioned earlier, these thoughts are natural but that doesn’t necessarily make them justifiable. Instead of fear, there is another way to look at the presence of a cougar at the cape.
Cougars have large territories, are mostly nocturnal and solitary animals. According to Pacific Coast Mammals, Ron Russo describes their habitat as, “generally wilderness but may hunt in rural hills.” Taking this into consideration, Cape Disappointment certainly has “rural hills” and certain areas of the park have characteristics of “wilderness” as well. The park, 1,800 acres in size, has large sections of it without any roads or trails through it. These areas are thickly brushed and often wet for most of the year. With this kind of habitat, especially considering the large deer population in the park, you can easily understand why a cougar would choose to live there. We should be proud that we have such an intact ecosystem at the cape that a cougar would want to live there.
Aldo Leopold, says early in his most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” This view is partially true; some of us may think that we can live without wild animals, but in reality we probably wouldn’t live for too long. As we learn more about ecology and its principles, it becomes evident that everything is connected. This is not voodoo or blasphemy, it is a fact of life that we are all part of the web of life. It just so happens that the we are looking eye to eye with the cougar on top of the food chain. Fortunately, there is room for all of us.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website “Living with Wildlife in Washington” close encounters with cougars are “extremely rare.” In the last century “around 20 fatalities and 100 non-fatal attacks have been reported.” The WDFW has some good advice for those of us who recreate in cougar habitat and want to avoid seeing one: hike in small groups, keep small kids close to the group, don’t approach dead deer or elk, and keep a clean camp. If you happen to see a cougar in the wild, the rule is to stop, stand tall, and don’t run. Cougars will rarely act aggressively if they perceive you as a potential threat. See the WDFW’s website for more particulars: http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/cougar/cougar.
Jon Schmidt is an Interpretive Specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. To contact him, call the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at (360)642-3029 or email email@example.com.