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MailTribune.com
  • 'Pure luck'

    It's 'a bit of an anomaly' — Oregon has never recorded a cougar-caused injury or fatal attack on a human
  • It's a question that lingers in the back of the mind for hikers, cross-country skiers and mountain-bikers heading alone into Oregon's backcountry.
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  • It's a question that lingers in the back of the mind for hikers, cross-country skiers and mountain-bikers heading alone into Oregon's backcountry.
    What's the chance I could get attacked by a cougar?
    The more fearful ones dwell upon accounts like that of a homeless Southern California man who was reportedly attacked Saturday. If confirmed by wildlife officials, it will be that state's 15th cougar attack since 1986.
    The informed ones, on the other hand, remind themselves that there has never been a confirmed cougar-caused injury or fatal attack in Oregon in more than a century.
    Is that just dumb luck, or is there a reason Oregon's cougars have left humans alone while mountain lions in neighboring states seem more prone to attack?
    Experts say there is nothing special about Oregon's streak, which could run for another century or end next week.
    Cougar attacks remain so statistically rare and unpredictably random that wildlife experts have no good answer about whether the backwoods' worry-warts are more or less realistic than those who feel immune from one of the West's apex predators when recreating in their habitat.
    "It's a little bit, on its face, of an anomaly in Oregon," says Rick Hopkins, a research biologist and cougar expert in San Jose, Calif. "But there's no good reason there hasn't been an attack in Oregon other than pure luck.
    "With only one or two attacks a year in all of North America, it's not that remarkable not to have one in Oregon," Hopkins says. "It's interesting, but not all that remarkable."
    Oregon wildlife officials realize an attack could come at any time. Every Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Oregon contains a Cougar Attack Response Kit. Field biologists continue to train and retrain in how to use them, how to process an attack scene and who to call if it happens.
    But those calls have never been made.
    "I can't explain it," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "People have asked me that for years. All the states around us have attacks, and we don't. Fortunately, they just seem to get in trouble with pets and livestock here.
    "It hasn't happened, but it doesn't mean it won't," he says. "Hope not."
    Saturday's attack occurred near Perris, Calif., when the unidentified 50-year-old victim suffered lacerations, puncture wounds and bite marks at the base of his skull — all wounds consistent with an attack by a cougar, which are commonly called mountain lions in California.
    California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. Patrick Foy says investigators have not been able to interview the victim.
    "He's in really, really bad shape," Foy says.
    CDFW law enforcement officers and biologists have placed baited traps in an effort to capture the offending cougar, according to the CDFW. DNA samples were collected from the victim to match with the cougar if it is captured. If biologists get a match, the cougar will be killed, the CDFW says.
    Foy says California's confirmed cases don't show any particular trends because they've occurred in a variety of areas and under an array of circumstances.
    "Solo individuals, smaller-stature people," Foy says. "That's about the only real correlation you can make from the very limited data you get from mountain lion attacks."
    Hopkins says California's 38 million people and the massive amounts of cougar habitat within the country's third-largest state make it more likely to rack up cougar attacks than Oregon with its relatively sparse population.
    And that's to be expected, based on the same logic that says people would expect California to log more traffic fatalities than Rhode Island.
    "But that doesn't stop us from making these dumb comparisons in cougar attacks," Hopkins says. "Not every state is equal."
    In fact, Hopkins says, while California has the attack numbers, it remains 11th among Western states and Canadian provinces in attacks per capita.
    There are other anomalies, too.
    Half of the attacks occur in Canada, but Canada doesn't have half the cougars and certainly doesn't have half the population of the western half of the continent.
    Most attacks are in the backcountry, Hopkins says. Also, there is no statistical correlation between the numbers of sightings in a particular area and attacks, Hopkins says.
    Research has consistently shown that male cougars under age 2 are disproportionately more likely to attack a human compared to other age subsets. But there's nothing to suggest which particular young males will attack.
    There simply aren't enough attacks to draw any statistical conclusions about why attacks occur or don't.
    "These rare events are not evenly distributed," Hopkins says.
    And at some time Oregon will end up part of that distribution, regardless of what more than a century of history has shown us, Hopkins says.
    "It will happen at some point," Hopkins says. "Then everyone will come up with a reason, and that's the stupid thing — trying to make sense of a rare event."
    Hikers, skiers and mountain bikers likewise will still let that question creep into their minds when they spend time in Oregon's backcountry.
    In the end, they're better off asking themselves what makes them think they're so special.
    "You're more likely to win the lottery than get attacked by a cougar," Hopkins says. "How many people do you know who won the lottery?"
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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