Issaquah is cougar territory, but big cats still scarce

August 2, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

State wildlife biologist Brian Kertson spent five years studying the local cougar population, including this 130-pound, 2-year-old male captured and tagged in the Cedar River Watershed in 2008. Contributed

Now a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Issaquah native Brian Kertson likes to talk about what he calls the “wildland-urban interface.”

Basically, such an area is where raw, undeveloped nature bumps up against developed, urban areas.

Probably not surprisingly to those who live or work here, sitting as it does in the shadows of the Cascade foothills, Issaquah is just such an interface.

And, of course, such interfaces can contain plenty of wildlife, including larger animals not usually found in urban areas.

“The kind of territory we live in is cougar territory whether we realize it or not,” said Bob McCoy, a local wildlife activist who takes a special interest in cougars and is an admirer of Kertson’s work.

For his part, Kertson clearly agrees with McCoy’s assessment regarding cougars in Issaquah. From 2003-08, Kertson completed a large-scale study of cougars in Issaquah and surrounding areas. The work represented Kertson’s doctoral thesis at the University of Washington.

“Previously, we just didn’t know a lot about the cougars in that area,” Kertson added.

Finished last year, Kertson’s work is attracting some attention and may be published in the near future. Along with similar studies done across the state, it also is being used as the basis for developing a statewide policy on how to deal with Washington’s cougar population.

“There are states who would love to have as much information as we do,” Kertson said.

For his study, Kertson looked at an area of 1,100 square miles between roughly Interstate 405 and the Cascades, and from roughly Sammamish to Renton. In all that space, Kertson figures there are between 30 or 40 resident and transient cougars at any given time.

Resident cougars have an established territory. As the name implies, transient cougars are those that are just sort of passing through, probably looking for a space to call their own.

During his study, Kertson used dogs to track down and temporarily cage 34 cougars. Most were adults, though Kertson said some of the animals were younger. Of those captured, 28 were fitted with small GPS collars. Other animals got traditional radio collars.

By using the GPS units, Kertson said he was able to track the movements of some cougars for as long as three years. One big finding was that most of the cougars in this area spend about 17 percent of their time in more urbanized locales.

“These cougars don’t generate a lot of reports,” Kertson said. “They are there, they just aren’t seen.”

According to the state, there have been three reported cougar sightings in Issaquah and Sammamish this year. The most recent was in Sammamish in March. But both Kertson and McCoy said most supposed cougar sightings are false alarms.

“Cougars are highly adaptable… They make a living off not being seen,” Kertson said.

Over the five-year period of his study, Kertson added there were only 17 confirmed cougar reports in the study area. And most of those were simple sightings; the animals were not causing problems. Kertson further noted the time cougars spend in the interface arrives in small increments. The animals wander through for a short time and move on quickly.

So, now the big question. When all is said and done, according to Kertson’s study, just how many cougars call the wilds around Issaquah home? The short answer is, not many.

Kertson said the combined “Tiger/Squak/Cougar mountain complex” just isn’t big enough to support more than two or three resident cougars. Transient cougars may come and go, but Kertson said none of the cats stay long.

Adult cougars need plenty of space to roam and feed. A grown male’s home territory generally runs about 200 square miles; the same figure is about 60 miles for adult females.

While Kertson admitted cougars certainly could be dangerous, he insists they are not the threat many people seem to believe them to be.

“They are not sitting behind trees waiting for kids to pass by,” he said.

The threat cougars pose to domestic animals is also generally overstated, in Kertson’s opinion. He said the vast majority of cougar attacks on domestic animals are due to poor husbandry by the animal’s owners and are largely avoidable.

“These animals are there, but they just aren’t this brooding danger,” Kertson said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Issaquah is cougar territory, but big cats still scarce”

  1. Bob McCoy on August 3rd, 2011 1:34 pm

    Dr. Kertson is one of many eminent cougar biologists that we have in Washington State. I believe we are fortunate to have these magnificent cats and to have scientists like Brian that have come to understand, and can explain, cougar habits and social structure.

    Mountain Lion Foundation has prepared a Pet Safety information sheet for those of us that live in cougar territory: http://www.mountainlion.org/4simplesteps.asp MLF’s website also has information on how to act should you encounter a cougar while out and about. Basically, DON’T RUN and maintain EYE CONTACT.

    Cougar Mountain Zoo recently received three cougar kittens. You should visit CMZ to see these kittens while they still have their spots. Usually cougar spots fade at around six to eight months. CMZ has two viewing periods, 10:30 and 2:30 Wednesday to Sunday, and the afternoon playtime includes a mini-lecture. Were these cats in the wild, they would leave their mother at about 18 to 24 months, and would have to find and establish their own territory.

    Cougars feed predominantly on deer, and are the most efficient of the cats when hunting their preferred prey, with better than an 80% success rate. Yet, because cougars strictly limit their own population, they do not decimate deer and elk herds, and like wolves, contribute to a healthier habitat and, subsequently, healthier and more abundant wildlife, including fish! There are many interesting articles available on the Web that explain this effect.

    Thank you Issaquah Press and Tom Corrigan for this article.

  2. enviro on August 9th, 2011 6:06 am

    Recent efforts by hunters to pass legislation to allow hunting cougars with dogs in Washington has no scientific basis from the standpoint of either public safety or livestock protection. These magnificent animals will become extinct in a few short years in Washington if this type of “cougar management” succeeds along with the issuance of many more “kill permits” than the number of cougars even alive in Washington.

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