Cougar attack on 9-year-old child rekindles longstanding fears for public safety in northeast Washington

Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

When a cougar attacked a 9-year-old girl who was playing hide and seek near Fruitland, Wash., last week, it reignited long-standing concerns about what some believe is an overabundant cougar population in the Northeast. east of Washington.

“Sorry to say, this proves what we’ve been saying for a while now,” said Dale Magart, secretary of the Colville-based Northeast Washington Wildlife Group. “There are too many cougars out there. We’re going to have more incidents.”

Meanwhile, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say cougar behavior and ecology remain unknown and warn that, while tragic, cougar attacks are extremely rare.

“I can’t say there’s a long-term trend that I’ve seen that I could point out and say things are getting worse or things are getting better,” WDFW captain Jeff Wickersham said. , who worked for the agency for 20 years. “Incidents happen and then they don’t happen. I will say that incidents like this are extremely rare.”

There have been two fatal attacks on humans in Washington state, including one in 2018 and 20 that have caused injury to humans in the past 100 years, according to WDFW. In 2019, a child was attacked by a cougar in Leavenworth.

Washington’s rural northeast corner is home to the majority of the state’s wolf population and has seen an increase in human-cougar encounters in recent years. This has raised concerns about public safety, particularly with regard to cougars. Those worries boiled over in 2018 when about 60 people from northeastern Washington attended a WDFW commission meeting in Spokane and expressed, sometimes angrily, their concerns.

This meeting, among other things, prompted the national wildlife agency to examine human cougar safety issues. In 2020, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission liberalized cougar harvest allocation in response to hunter demands for more opportunities in 19 game management units (GMUs) in northeastern Washington.

Following this, an agency cougar conflict science study examined a number of questions about cougar behavior and human-cougar interactions. According to the findings, which were published in January, “the review concluded that the roles of cougar offtake; cougar population size; prey abundance or diversity; human population size, distribution or its levels of recreation; human attitudes and competition with other large carnivores in human-cougar interactions remain unclear, primarily due to limited or poor data and deficiencies in the analytical methods used.”

“They’re hard to study. They’re elusive,” said Eric Gardner, director of WDFW’s wildlife program. “They occur in low densities.”

This contrasts with other species, such as deer or elk. Elk, for example, are counted by helicopter during the winter when it is easy to spot animals in the herd. Other research efforts frustrating, there hasn’t been as much interest in cougars historically because the big cats have nearly become extinct (local extinction) from Washington and other western states. WDFW estimates there are 3,600 cougars in the state.

“I think there’s a lot to learn there,” Gardner said. “I think there’s a lot to learn about cougar behavior.”

Regarding concerns about a growing cougar population in northeastern Washington, Gardner said, “You really can’t say for the state that we’re seeing an increase or a decrease in the cougar population. .”

That kind of statement frustrates Magart, who grew up in Stevens County and said she saw deer and elk populations plummet, while cougar and wolf sightings increased.

“It’s frustrating the way we’re going and how we see that our deer numbers are half of what we saw five years ago just because of predation,” he said.

Magart points to increased cougar removals in response to public safety concerns as evidence of a growing cougar population. In 2019, WDFW police killed 10 cougars in Stevens County in response to public safety concerns and cougar attacks on livestock or other animals. In 2020, WDFW police killed 14 cougars. In 2021, they killed seven.

This is, however, an imperfect measure, which can be influenced by a number of factors, including the readily available nature of remote cameras – a technology that even 10 years ago was generally too expensive for the average person. .

“Anyone can set up a trail camera on a national forest and see what’s happening on the forest road,” Wickersham said.

WDFW and other natural resource agencies are using these same technologies to study cougars in ways that were once impossible.

The Washington Predator Prey Project, which has been running for years, assesses the impact of cougars and wolves on prey species and other predator species in Washington. The results of these studies are beginning to be published.

At the same time, the Kalispel Tribe is completing a study of ways to scare cougars, including the use of hunting dogs, while documenting whether these methods cause cougars to change their behavior.

WDFW has also formed a cougar advisory committee that looks at education and awareness. Following last week’s attack at Fruitland, WDFW has again focused on best practices for staying safe in cougar country (see sidebar).

This is all good and important, said WDFW Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane.

But she hopes the emphasis on individual responsibility does not preclude state management decisions.

“It worries me that if we just focus on education, awareness and individual accountability, it prevents us from asking questions about demographic approaches,” she said.

The commission has begun revising the state’s game management plan, a process that helps biologists establish hunting seasons. This plan includes cougar hunting.

Meanwhile, Lily Kryzhanivskyy, the 9-year-old girl attacked by the cougar, is doing well and since Friday night “expected to come out at any time,” her father Yuri Kryzhanivskyy said. As for his beliefs on issues of cougar management, population density, and state response?

“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “We see this as a freak accident.”