Cougar Safety

Cougar attacks on humans are VERY rare. In the states of WA, OR and ID, there have only been 3 human deaths due to cougars in recorded history.  Just for perspective, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) records show that in 2017 alone, in-state traffic accidents resulted in more than 520 deaths and more than 12,000 injuries!

Washington State’s (2018) human population totaled approximately 7,600,000 humans and more than 2,200 adult cougars. In 1924, a young man tending horses was killed by a mountain lion near Omak. In late spring, 2018, a mountain biker was killed by a young undernourished cougar near North Bend. During Washington’s nearly 200 years of recorded (post European) history  there have been fewer than a dozen total cougar attacks on humans. This is despite the fact that millions of residents of these Northwest States with more than 250,000 square miles of prime cougar habitat spend much of their lifetimes living, hunting and recreating outdoors in cougar habitat. Most recently, a cougar-caused human fatality occurred in Oregon in September, 2018. This is the sole death due to a mountain lion ever recorded in the State.  Idaho — with slightly larger population of cougars but a smaller human population — has to-date never had a human death caused by cougars.

The federal and state wildlife agencies continue to advise that cougars are very fearful of humans and normally go to great lengths to completely avoid humans and their pets. Washington State has a very robust cougar population, and a very substantial human population. Almost half of Washington State residents live within cougar habitat.  Correspondingly, Washington, Oregon and Idaho residents are notably very outdoors-oriented and spend a great deal of time hiking, camping, hunting, working and otherwise recreating in mountain lion habitat. Despite this, few will ever even see a wild mountain lion.

Remember, however: all of us need to know that cougars are large, powerful and extraordinarily athletic wild animals. Our own “American lion” is capable of killing the largest prey relative to their body size of any large cat on earth. A single 120 lb mountain lion can successfully overcome a 720 lb elk — an animal 6 times its own weight!  So, NEVER approach them if you see them. When outdoors for any reason, always be “situationally-aware” and observant.  We all need to be situationally-aware when we drive, walk our dogs, or just when strolling around in town. Even a relaxed situational-awareness is good!

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provides the following recommendations on its website that reflect the collective experience and wisdom of cougar experts around the country:

While recreating in cougar habitat:

  • Keep your camp clean and store food and garbage in double plastic bags.
  • Keep small children close to the group, preferably in plain sight just ahead of you. After all, it’s so easy for unsupervised small children to become lost in the wilderness!
  • Do not approach dead animals, especially deer or elk; they could have been cougar prey left for a later meal.

If you see or encounter a cougar:

(What is the difference between an encounter and a sighting?  see below)

  • Never approach the cougar or offer it food. You should never do this with deer or any wild animal.
  • Immediately and forcefully show the animal that you’re a human:  Put small children behind you or pick them up. Stop, look big, wave your arms, vocalize. Also, control your dogs, — Do not run away. Running and rapid movements may trigger a chase response. This is all that’s necessary in most encounters and will put the cougar to flight.
  • Otherwise, face the cougar. Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away. Always leave the animal an escape route.
  • Try to appear larger than the cougar. Get above it (e.g., step up onto a rock or stump). If wearing a jacket, hold it open to further increase your apparent size. If you are in a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder to appear intimidating.
  • Do not take your eyes off the cougar or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
  • If the cougar does not flee, be more assertive. If it shows signs of aggression (crouches with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching, and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump), shout, wave your arms and throw anything you have available (water bottle, book, backpack). The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey, but a potential danger.
  • If the cougar attacks, fight back. Be aggressive and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back using anything within reach, including sticks, rocks, shovels, backpacks, and clothing—even bare hands. If you are aggressive enough, a cougar will flee, realizing it has made a mistake. Pepper spray in the cougar’s face is also effective in the extreme unlikelihood of a close encounter with a cougar.

What To Do If You See Or Have An Encounter With A Cougar?

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ranks reports of cougars into the following three categories.  Please read carefully and see how WDFW interprets cougar behaviors in table below.

1. Sighting:

A sighting occurs in the cougar’s natural environment, a sighting is a view from a distance where the cougar may have noticed you (or not) and continued on its way. Cougars may move through areas to more remote areas using washes or forested corridors.

Response: It is not necessary to report a sighting. Cougars are rarely aggressive toward humans. They are secretive, and usually avoid contact with people whenever possible. Absent evidence of a cougar’s aggressiveness or unacceptable willingness to be near people, it is not necessary to respond to sightings. However, if you wish to report your sighting, call the closest Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional office.

2. Encounter:

An encounter occurs when a close interaction takes place with a cougar, and it did not immediately leave the area. An encounter can entail: a brief stare at a closer distance than is described in “sighting” above; the cat took a step or two forward before it left the area (note that this behavior may be due to the cat’s curiosity, and thus may not be exhibiting aggressive behavior); the cat gives a warning “hiss”; or, the cat didn’t leave the area until you threw something at it.

Response: Call the closest Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, (8 A.M to 5 P.M, Monday – Friday, excluding holidays).  After hours and weekends, a state patrol radio dispatcher is available by calling 911; wildlife officers will be notified immediately.

3. Attack:

An attack occurs when a cougar makes physical contact with humans, pets, or livestock.

Response: Call 911 immediately. Quick response is crucial even for pets and livestock.

Remember, removal is usually a last resort:
It is important to keep wildlife wild and remove whatever is attracting cougars (such as feeding deer, or allowing deer to persist near people). If people are seeing a cougar in a particular area regularly , it may warrant a response from WDFW. In some cases, the department may remove a cougar that presents an imminent threat to human safety. Please be aware of laws in Washington regarding killing wildlife.

To prevent further problems:

  • Close or patch-up any potential cougar shelter (i.e., under porches).
  • Do not feed deer or any other wildlife that cougar may prey upon.
  • Try using outdoor lighting and/or motion activated lights to repel cougars. Sprinklers and commercial motion-activated inflatable scarecrows startle animals when activated.
  • Always work with your neighbors for a consistent solution.

Interpretation of cougar behaviors

Arranged in order of increasing risk to a human interacting with the cougar, depending on the distance to the animal and provided that the human response is appropriate. Because a cougar’s behavior usually is not observed prior to an attack, these behaviors should not be the only criteria used for assessing risk (from Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group 2005).

Observed cougar behavior Interpretation Human Risk
Opportunistically viewed at a distance Secretive Low
Flight, hiding Avoidance Low
Lack of attention toward person Indifference Low
Ears up; shifting positions; intent attention; following Curiosity Low
Intense staring; following and hiding  Expressing curiosity or interest Moderate
Hissing, snarling, vocalization Defensive behavior Moderate
Crouching; tail twitching; intense staring; ears flattened; body low to ground; head may be up Defensive, if backed into corner may attack Moderate/High
Ears flat, fur out; tail twitching; body and head low to ground; rear legs “pumping” Imminent attack High