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(Public Doman Photos Blog/Flickr)

Tasha Smith let her dog out just after midnight on Oct. 9. Smith was in her bedroom when she heard whimpering and a growl coming from her yard. She went to investigate. Her dog yelped and ran inside before she saw an animal she believed to be a cougar fleeing over her fence. The dog incurred minor scratches and was reportedly OK. KEZI News covered this story.

Encounters like Smith’s are becoming more common in Oregon. The challenge is determining whether the animal was really a mountain lion, or something else. That is when wildlife officials typically get involved.

Christopher Yee, a Wildlife Biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that he received a message about the event in Smith’s backyard. He returned her call and left a voicemail but as of Oct. 22 had not heard from Smith.

First-hand accounts like Smith’s frequently take place at night when visual identification is difficult. Even hearing noises can be deceiving. A defensive raccoon, for instance, has a surprising range of vocalizations, some sound distinctly catlike. When photos or videos aren’t available, it takes skill to determine where a cougar was active.    

Rising reports of cougar activity appear to show a trend toward more of these reclusive cats exploring our backyards and cul-de-sacs.

The forests around Eugene-Springfield are home to abundant wildlife. While some animals like raccoons, deer, opossums, or turkeys are relatively common sights, others are hardly seen. Bears and bobcats, coyotes and cougars – all are species we share space with. 

Determining the amount of cougar activity in the area is difficult, Yee said. The Springfield ODFW office receives frequent calls about potential cougar activity that cannot be substantiated, especially following news reports of potential cougar encounters. The pattern suggests a rise in concern for pet and human health when cougars are active in urban areas.

Wild cats, in particular, seem to capture the public’s attention when they are spotted. Encounters with mountain lions and other feline species can lead to concern for public safety or contentious debates in the human community, especially when an animal is euthanized. 

In late August a cougar approached Peter Idema while he was running in the Dunn Forest near Corvallis, Oregon. After Idema kicked the cat he thought the encounter was over, but it continued to pursue him. When a pair of hikers with a dog appeared the cougar left the area. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife used hounds to track the cougar and ultimately euthanized it as a public safety precaution. 

That story was reported by the KVAL Eugene and other area news outlets, sparking debate between advocacy groups and state officials over the handling of animals that are determined to be potentially dangerous to humans. 

In Eugene, a controversy has arisen over a juvenile bobcat that entered a school. 

Nicki Hoskins is the Pre-Kindergarten Director and Afterschool Program coordinator at Oak Hill School. She was with her class on the playground after school on Oct. 16 when the school received an unlikely visitor. “I kept hearing people say something about ‘bobcat, bobcat, bobcat,’ So we went to investigate the situation,” Hoskins said. 

“It was very surreal. It’s not every day that you have a bobcat walk into an open door and hop in a window and look at you,” Hoskins said, “I haven’t gotten to be that close to a bobcat before and see how beautiful it was. It was bittersweet.”

The bobcat had wandered into the school where it was contained until the Lane County Sheriff and Oregon State Police arrived. The animal’s abnormal behavior led ODFW to determine that it may pose a risk to public safety. OSP carried out the euthanasia of the bobcat via blunt force trauma. A press release issued by OSP on Friday said, “A single strike rendered the animal deceased instantly.”

Hoskins said she and the staff at Oak Hill School are saddened and had hoped for a different outcome.

Local media outlets pounced on the story. Some have used language that could be called sensationalism, such as this lede in a story published by The Eugene Weekly, “Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is having trouble explaining to dubious animal advocates why it beat a bobcat kitten to death after it wandered into Oak Hill School.” 

The community has been in uproar since the incident. Advocacy groups, such as Eugene based Predator Defense, questioned whether the method used to dispatch the animal was considered humane according to American Veterinary Medical Association standards and whether euthanizing the cat was necessary.  

As the Eugene-Springfield area expands and grows, conflicts like this between human and wildlife populations may become more common. That would mean more animals and wildlife officials navigating an already complex relationship.

Yee said he believes that Oregon’s available cougar habitat is at carrying capacity, meaning there is no more available territory for them, and that they are especially dense in hills around Eugene-Springfield.

The ODFW Cougar Management Plan estimates that over 6,000 cougars live in Oregon. The mathematical model used to generate those numbers has been questioned due to it including kittens in the count and their high mortality rate. Even if the model is way off in exact numbers the trend shows a steadily increasing population of cougars since 1987.

The ODFW website has information on how to stay safe around cougars and other wildlife. As for identifying a cougar, Yee said there is one feature, in particular, to look for “The long tail. The tail is nearly as long as the body. When you actually see it, it’s unmistakable.”

Correction on Monday, Nov. 4: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Predator Defense. It has been updated to reflect the correct name.