The search continued Friday for the cougar thought to have killed hiker Diana Bober in the forests near Mount Hood. Her death is considered the first to result from an attack by a wild mountain lion in the state. It has led the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to close 14 trails and 29,000 acres of national forest so the hunters can search unimpeded.
Four hounds and two men mounted on mules have been crossing through the damp underbrush surrounding the Hunchback trail near Zig Zag Ranger Station. Today, skies are clear and the rains have stopped. It’s a welcome break. On Wednesday, poor conditions delayed the start of the hunt for the cougar. On Thursday, rain dampened any scent the hounds might detect, and made the already-treacherous terrain slippery.
The going was slow: the hunters, who are from the federal Wildlife Services program tasked with removing problem predators, covered seven miles before ending their first day. They hadn’t found any sign of cougars. Today, they plan search a new area and return between 1 and 2, to discuss anything they find and come up with a new plan.
Even with good weather and the aid of dogs, searching for a mountain lion is difficult work, says Veronica Yovovich, who studies wildlife-human conflict University of California, Berkeley and has tracked mountain lions with hounds to study their behavior.
“It’s not like in movies, where dogs get a smell and chase a prisoner,” says Yovovich, “When you’re trying to find mountain lions, you want night-old tracks, that’s what holds the scent best.”
But it could be weeks since the cougar thought to have attacked Bober was in the area. In the meantime, other mountain lions may have moved into the search zone.
Mountain lions have large ranges that change size as they interact with the other creatures around them. Older adult males hold ranges that are about 100 miles in size,Yovovich says, though they can be bigger. They’ll chase away or kill any other males that cross into their territory. Several females with smaller ranges can overlap with that male’s territory — and with each other’s.
That means it’s very possible that the first mountain lion found might not be the right one.
To confirm that a mountain lion was responsible for the attack, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sent samples from Bober’s wounds to a wildlife forensics lab in Ashland. They’ll try to recover DNA from the mountain lion’s saliva from those samples. This will allow them to say definitively if a cougar was or was not responsible for the attack -- and, possibly, to confirm if any cougar they catch is the right one.
Matching the DNA from the wounds to one specific cougar could be difficult, says Taal Levi, a wildlife scientist at Oregon State University who uses DNA left behind by predators to estimate population size.
“It all depends on how much saliva they could recover,” says Levi, “if they can get enough small fragments of DNA, they can read it like a barcode and identify the individual.”
ODFW says that while it has no plans to kill large numbers of mountain lions indiscriminately, any cougar they do encounter in the search area will be killed.
“We really don’t have a way that we could capture and hold a cougar while we wait for (DNA) test results to come back, especially in that terrain,” said ODFW watershed manager Brian Wolfer at a press conference on Wednesday.
The decision to hunt the mountain lion is proving controversial. Brooks Fahy, the executive director of the nonprofit environmental group Predator Defense, says that search for this animal is a “vengeance killing.” Fahy says he’s gotten calls and emails from numerous supporters who feel the same.
Most problem cougars are young males who likely just left their mothers. These males sometimes travel hundreds of miles searching for a new territory, so it's possible the cougar has left the area. On the other hand, if the cougar is a female with cubs, it could stay in one area for a while.
The attack on Mount Hood followed a recent string of cougar reports in the news. In May, one person was killed and another injured while mountain biking near Snoqualmie, Washington. In an unconfirmed incident, a cougar entered a woman's home near Ashland. And a number of mountain lions were spotted in urban areas -- some of which ODFW euthanized after problem behaviors were reported.
There are several reasons for this apparent uptick in human-cougar interactions, Yovovich says. Populations of cougars are growing in Oregon. In 1960, cougars were almost extinct in the state. Now, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are 6,600 cougars in the state.
At the same time, human populations have grown even faster, and more people are living near the edge of the forest. And the number of Oregonians recreating outdoors has increased even more quickly. Nearly 47,000 people visited the Three Sisters Wilderness in 2011. In 2016, that number jumped to over 132,000. And that's just one small portion of forest.
There are also more “digital eyes” looking for cougars, Yovovich says. Backyard trail cameras are increasingly popular and hikers carry smartphones, which let them instantly share their wildlife encounters with the internet. Sometimes they go viral.
Even with all of that, encounters with cougars remain extremely rare. Hundreds of thousands of people explore the Northwest’s wildlands each year, but until this month there had never been a confirmed fatal attack in Oregon.
Yovovich says the most common place humans and mountain lions conflict is through domesticated animals.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping pets and livestock safe,” says Yovovich. These animals are easy prey for young mountain lions, which might be looking for areas to set up new ranges. And if the mountain lions find food, they’re more likely to stick around, despite cars, traffic, and loud humans.
People who live near mountain lion territory should bring their pets indoors by dusk. And if they keep chickens, goats, or do small-scale farming, those animals should be kept in pens with roofs.
“Mountain lions are extremely strong jumpers and they’re ambush predators that hunt herd animals,” says Yovovich. In the wild, a cougar would attack a deer and the rest of the herd would run away. But in small farms, fences designed to keep predators out usually just keep prey in.
This isn’t just for the pet’s and livestock’s safety: it’s for the cougar’s safety, too.
Oregon killed 169 problem cougars in 2016. These were mountain lions that were spotted several times in the daylight in urban areas, had been killing livestock, or had killed pets.
If you do encounter a mountain lion outdoors, the animal will usually flee, Yovovich says. “Most people don’t realize they saw a mountain lion until they see that distinct tail as it runs away.”
If it does approach or act aggressive, the best thing to do is remain calm and act large and intimidating. Without bending over, pick up small children. Hold out your coat to make yourself seem larger. If it continues, throw rocks or sticks, and fight back. Bear spray can also be an effective deterrent, says Yovovich, who has sprayed cougars before.
It appears as though Diana Bober did all of those things. Her sister says Bober successfully fought the cougar off, and that the cougar didn’t come back: Bober died from her wounds later. Robert Wielgus, who studied cougars at Washington State University, says he advises against hiking alone. “Seeing a mountain lion is already one in a million. Hiking with someone else makes it one in five million.”