It was 6:30 on a Thursday night and the Boys & Girls Club gymnasium in Sweet Home was packed. Groups of men and women in denim and hunting club jackets clustered near the walls.
Most of them were from this small western Oregon town where the Willamette Valley climbs toward the Cascades. They knew each other. They were chatting over coffee. But there were also people there who clearly weren’t from Sweet Home: They were standing alone, talking amongst themselves. They carried signs. One woman carried a puppy. And residents noticed them — and they were glaring.
Local town halls rarely pull people from across the state. But that Thursday the topic was cougars and emotions were high. A woman who just moved to the area with her family wanted to know if she could shoot a cougar threatening her on her property (“Only if you don’t live within city limits,” said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wildlife Division administrator Doug Cottam, “and you still need to report it.”) A man from Sweet Home said cougars have been seen near a playground. A man from Portland drove two hours to say he thinks hound hunting is cruel and abuses dogs. Another came from La Grande to say the opposite.
The two groups had one thing in common: a shared conviction that the ODFW was misleading them in some way about Oregon’s cougar population. But they disagreed about the best way to manage cougars. Those management decisions can have serious consequences for people who live or recreate in cougar country.
Cougar management was a hot topic in the 1990s, following the passage of Oregon Measure 18, which banned hunting cougars with hounds. Two years after the measure passed, another one was submitted to overturn that ban. It failed. Then wolves became reestablished in Oregon and a different predator took center stage in the state’s legislative battles. Both sides retreated to their respective corners and for a while the cougar debate quieted.
And then in September 2018, a woman died.
It was the first fatal attack by a cougar ever recorded in Oregon, and it came on the heels of several high-profile encounters in the state and a different fatal cougar attack in Washington.
Diana Bober was an avid hiker. She moved to Portland three years ago because she loved the people and she loved the trails — especially in the Columbia River Gorge. The Eagle Creek Fire that closed a number of trails in the Gorge in 2017 nearly broke her heart, said her sister Alison Bober. Diana considered leaving the state, but instead fell in love with new trails in the mountains.
Alison Bober said her sister knew the inherent risks in hiking alone. She chose to do so anyway because she believed there was no point in living a life in fear.
“Sometimes she’d Skype me from the trail and show me what she’d seen,” said Alison, who had just left Diana’s Gresham home where she had been packing up the last parts of her sister’s life.
When Alison realized that Diana had gone missing while hiking, she feared the worst: that her sister had been attacked by another human or died in an easily preventable accident.
“When we heard it was a cougar, in an odd way, we were so thankful,” Alison said. She leaned forward, “Diana didn’t die in an accident. Diana fought a cougar.”
It took 10 days for ODFW to find and kill a cougar near the area Diana Bober was supposedly attacked. “We wanted them to catch the cougar,” Alison said, “not out of revenge, but to make sure nothing happened to anyone else. I have nothing but praise for the wildlife officials and how they handled it.”
In the meantime, her family struggled to make sense of the incident. With the help of wildlife officials and the sheriff, they think they pieced together Diana’s final moments.
They believe that Bober first spotted the cougar from the trail. When it continued approaching her, she moved out of its way and into the woods. But it followed her.
She hung her rain jacket on a tree to make herself look larger. She took off her backpack, and threw the items in it at the cougar, one at a time, backing away slowly. But the cat was undeterred. When Bober’s body was found, there was evidence she had been dragged to the bottom of a ravine. She was holding a sharp stick across her chest that she’d used to fight back.
There’s no way to know a cougar’s motive, so Alison Bober has tried to understand the animal.
“I’ve learned a lot about cougars since this happened,” Alison said. “Did you know they have nerves in their canine teeth, so they can tell when they’ve bitten through the spine?”
It’s gruesome, but Alison said knowing that made her feel better.
“We think she died quickly. It broke her neck,” Alison said. That’s how cougars take down prey so much larger than themselves. Unlike African lions — which are only half as small as the animals they kill — the elk and deer that cougars favor can be several times larger than them.
In the weeks since the attack, Alison Bober has been contacted by hunting advocates and pro-cougar groups asking her to take a stance on either side. She responded by saying that she doesn’t want her sister’s death to be politicized, but told OPB that “Diana wouldn’t have wanted this to be used to bring back hound hunting.”
Despite Alison’s requests, the October meeting in Sweet Home was very political, and her sister’s name came up repeatedly. There were two groups: those who think Diana Bober died because Oregon isn’t hunting enough lions, and those who think she died because Oregon is hunting too many.
Hound hunters cite the increasing number of cougar encounters around Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and say that hound hunting, which doesn’t necessarily end with shooting a cougar, creates a population of animals that are scared of humans and dogs. Conservation advocates, on the other hand, say that overhunting leaves young cougars orphaned and destroys cougar social structures.
There is no way to link Bober’s death to any one management decision or hunting quota. Cougars attack humans so rarely there’s no data; it’s not scientifically possible. And just about everything related to cougars in Oregon is debated, down to the number of animals present in the state.
These days, no one seems happy with the way Measure 18 was executed. After hound hunting was banned, the number of tags sold skyrocketed, and the number of cougars killed in Oregon has doubled. Still, cougar advocates don’t want to see the dogs return.
It’ll be some time before hound hunting returns to Oregon — if it ever does. Voters blocked every attempt, and Oregon’s hunting-averse urban population is only growing. Still, as more people use the outdoors and live near the edge of the woods, encounters with cougars will only increase.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent problem encounters between humans and cougars — short of removing large numbers of them from a majority of the state — is to change human behavior.
Veronica Yovovich is a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, where she studies human-predator conflict. She said the most effective way to avoid bad interactions is to keep pets and livestock from becoming prey.
Throughout the U.S., cougars tend to kill animals kept by small-scale farms and hobbyists. In California, for example, most attacks are on sheep and goats, followed by cats and dogs. Sometimes these animals are fenced in with low pens or kept on ropes. Cougars are great climbers, and livestock are easy prey.
“The best thing you can do is keep your animals fully enclosed from dusk to dawn. Once an incident occurs, you can use lethal removal,” said Yovovich, “but that doesn’t bring back the animal you’ve lost.”
The battle between predators and rural life plays out in granges and town halls across the West. It’s fought over cougars and coyotes, wolves and grizzly bears, and it won’t be stopping any time soon. There’s another public hearing scheduled Nov. 17 in Ashland.