Predators roam Central Oregon, but slim chance for attack
BEND, Ore. (AP) — That Bend is home to more than 90,000 people may instill a sense of civilized tranquility. Don’t be fooled. Healthy populations of cougars, bears, coyotes and a few wolves stalk the area, too.
Overhead, birds of prey are capable of swooping on your outdoor cat or small dog and carrying it away.
But what are the odds of an attack by these predators?
Chances are slim, said Jim Akenson, the conservation director at the Oregon Hunters Association and a retired research biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Yet when encounters do happen, they can sometimes be fatal.
This spring, in Washington state, an emaciated cougar attacked two mountain bikers, killing one of them. That attack was the first in Washington in nearly a century. No fatal cougar attacks have been recorded in Oregon, according to the ODFW. Still, the tragedy was a jarring example of how outdoors activities overlap with the territories of native predators.
It is worth keeping several prominent predators in mind while recreating outdoors in Central Oregon.
Authorities recommend making yourself appear as large as possible if you encounter any of these predators in the wild. Ways to scare predators include making a whirring sound by waving hiking sticks, yelling and waving arms. Maintain eye contact and fight back if attacked. “Playing dead” is reserved for encounters with grizzly bears, which no longer live in Oregon. Never flee, which can inspire a chase, particularly among cougars and bears. Using pepper spray or firing a shot from a firearm — either a warning shot toward the ground or a kill shot — is legal, last resort means of self-defense on public land, authorities said. Hikers with dogs should keep them leashed to prevent predator run-ins. There is no need, however, to pepper spray or shoot birds of prey. Doing so will run you afoul of federal law.
Territory, population: Also known as mountain lions, cougars are native to Oregon. Due to bounty hunting in the 20th century, the state population dwindled to about 200.
In the late 1960s, the ODFW tightened hunting regulations, which allowed cougar populations to rebound. Having nearly tripled since the early 1990s, there are presently about 6,400 cougars spread throughout the state, according to ODFW. The Blue Mountains in the northeast and the southwestern Cascade Mountains have the highest density of the feline, Akenson said.
Characteristics: While cougar mothers care for their young until they’re 2, cougars are otherwise solitary animals, according to ODFW. They hunt mostly at dawn and dusk. Tan in color, a cougar has white fur around its mouth. From head to tail a cougar spans 6 to 9 feet, with its tail stretching 3 feet, the agency said. Its paw prints resemble those of canines, but the pads are further spread out, and their claws, which are retractable, do not leave marks in dirt. Akenson has seen hundreds of sites where cougar killed prey and examined countless cougars in various states of sedation.
“They have muscles like strong cables,” he said. “You’re dealing with strength way beyond that of a man. They have (three times the) forearm strength. They’re just powerful beasts.”
Prey: As carnivores, cougars primarily prey on deer, elk and bighorn sheep, according to ODFW. Cougars’ killing technique involves grabbing prey by the head and wrenching, which breaks the neck, Akenson said. “When cougars are triggered, they’re deeply instinctual in their approach to predation,” Akenson said. “Cougars basically have a lock-on mechanism. When they have it in their minds that something is a prey item, they’re hard to dissuade — especially if (the cougars are) starving to death.”
Gray wolves and coyotes
Territory, population: While native to Oregon and once widespread, gray wolves were almost wiped out by human encroachment, according to ODFW. The species returned to Oregon in the mid-2000s and were descendants of packs reintroduced in Idaho and Wyoming in the 1990s. As of 2017, 124 wolves were confirmed to be living in Oregon — mostly in the northeast. In January, two gray wolves were spotted in northern Central Oregon.
Characteristics: Only about half of gray wolves are gray. Some may be white, tawny gray or black — or any combination of those colors, according to ODFW. While coyotes and gray wolves can be difficult to tell apart, adult male gray wolves are much larger, weighing from 90 to 110 pounds. From tail to nose, a male gray wolf may be longer than 5 1?2 feet. Adult females can weigh from 80 to 90 pounds and can measure 5 feet from nose to tail tip. Adult male coyotes, which are smaller, measure 32 to 37 inches from nose to rump; tails add 16 inches, according to National Geographic. They weigh 20 to 50 pounds, similar to a medium-size dog. Wolves have shorter, rounder ears, longer legs and larger paws than coyotes. While coyotes are abundant, there are no reliable estimations on their population, said Derek Broman, carnivore biologist at ODFW.
Prey: In vying for the same prey as cougars, wolves interact with cougars more than we might think. Packs of them have been known to track a cougar when it has a fresh kill.
“Wolves will chase the cat up a tree and take the kill,” Akenson said. ”‘Dogs chase cats’ — That’s where that all came from.”
One-on-one, however, a cougar can overpower a wild canine, and, in desperate times, a cougar may prey on one. Coyotes are omnivores, eating plants such as crops and berries as well as small animals, such as rodents, according to ODFW. They also scavenge on dead wildlife that otherwise could spread disease. While there are no recorded coyote-human attacks, the wild canines have been known to prey on livestock and domesticated pets.
Territory, population: About 25,000 to 30,000 native black bears live in Oregon. “Black bears are more abundant than cougars,” Akenson said. While grizzly bears are also native to the state, the last known grizzly was spotted and killed in the 1930s in Northeast Oregon, according to ODFW.
While black bears are scarce in Central and Eastern Oregon’s High Desert, the mammals congregate in the northeast and southwest corners of the state, Broman said. They’re also common in the Cascades, but more so on the lusher west side. Black bears prefer forests with rivers and streams or wetlands, where they can cool off. Akenson has spotted bears while fly-fishing on the Metolius River. He has also seen them in the Black Butte area.
“It’s always a fleeting glimpse of a bear, usually from the backside as they’re running away,” Akenson said. “They’re pretty cagey and wise about staying away from people.”
Characteristics: While black bears are usually black, they can also be brown, reddish or golden in color. Standing, black bears can measure 5 to 6 feet tall. On all fours, they’re usually 30 inches tall at the shoulder, according to Oregon Wild. Males’ weight ranges from 200 to 250 pounds; females, from 125 to 200 pounds. Males become aggressive and territorial during their mating season in June and July.
Prey: As omnivores, black bears feed on a mix of berries, nuts, grasses, insects, fish and small mammals. Campsites’ food and trash smells attract black bears, which can result in people being hurt by bears. Authorities recommend camping 100 yards from a cooking site and storing food and garbage in bear-proof canisters.
Birds of prey
Carnivorous raptors such as bald and golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and owls rarely bother people. However, pet owners should be aware that cats and small dogs are susceptible to these avian predators’ swooping attacks. A 2016 viral video of a bald eagle nest in Pennsylvania showed a parent landing with a lifeless cat to feed its chicks.
Akenson has seen similar drama play out in his backyard in Joseph, Oregon.
One winter day, a great horned owl, which is also found Central Oregon, swooped on his indoor-outdoor cat. The owl pierced a hole in the cat’s abdominal skin with a talon, carrying it 30 feet across the snowy yard until the cat freed itself. (The feline, named Bob, recovered.)
While such pet attacks are rare, birds of prey can interrupt your natural serenity another way. Throughout Central Oregon’s public land, officials regularly close public access to areas near several raptor nests. At Smith Rock State Park, officials closed the bivouac camping area until July 31 and climbing routes 1 through 44 until Aug. 15 due to bald eagle nest sites.
Bend-based wildlife photographer George Lepp has taken a keen interest in these nests.
For the fifth year in a row, Lepp has used a telescopic lens to photograph the bald eagle nests. This year he has documented the weekly growth of two eaglets that, in their 12th week, have begun to fly on their own. Lepp has not yet seen an eagle parent return to the nest with a small dog or cat. But the regularity with which they returned with fish not found in the Crooked River, however, makes him wonder whether they’re plucking them from nearby farms’ landscaping ponds.
Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com