Issaquah is cougar territory, but big cats still scarce
August 2, 2011
By Tom Corrigan
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.