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Police kill cougar that wanders into Ashland

ASHLAND - The young male cougar lay sprawled out on the tree limb about 20 feet above the ground, his legs dangling over both sides.

Periodically switching his long tail, the big cat quietly watched the small crowd of people watching him near the corner of Clay and Ashland streets early Saturday morning. The mountain lion had chosen a large tree on the edge of Wingspread Mobile Home Park for its perch.

Two Ashland Police Department officers armed with high-powered rifles kept an eye on the cat. Others officers, including those from the Oregon State Police, kept people from getting too close.

The Ashland police had received a call from a passerby that the cat was up the tree, explained Ashland Sgt. Jim Alderman.

That call came in at 8:36 a.m. Several homes in the park were evacuated.

"If the cat comes down, we are going to have to do something," Alderman said as he watched the cougar. "That's the bottom line.

"The cat has perked up a couple of times," he said. "We will have a problem if the crowd starts getting too close and the cat starts getting nervous."

Officials from his department, the OSP and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife were discussing the best way to handle the situation, he said.

"We're in a holding pattern right now," Alderman said. "With the cat relaxed like it is, we're going to let it sit up there and see what happens."

One woman in a jogging suit, who declined to give her name, said the cat had been seen several times in the area in the past month.

"They have to do something — what if it grabs a child?" she asked before walking off.

But local residents Jim and Nina Kelley hoped it would not be shot.

"Let it go," Jim Kelley said. "It is real strange it is up here in a tree right here in the city. But it is a wild animal that needs to be returned to the wild. It will probably go there on its own if it is left to its own devices."

A longtime Ashland resident, he noted he had never before seen a cougar in town.

But local residents Jim and Nina Kelley hoped it would not be shot.

"Let it go," Jim Kelley said. "It is real strange it is up here in a tree right here in the city. But it is a wild animal that needs to be returned to the wild. It will probably go there on its own if it is left to its own devices."

A longtime Ashland resident, he noted he had never before seen a cougar in town."I've seen them in the wild," Kelley said. "If you are going to see a cat, they are going to let you see them. They are pretty clever.

"But something is different here," he added as he looked at the cat. "I don't know what it is."

Like her husband, Nina Kelley hoped the cat would somehow be returned to the wild.

"I'd like to see it live and be wild," she said. "It doesn't look like she wants to hurt anybody. Maybe she'll eat a couple of yip-yap dogs."

Mobile home park resident Stacy Smith said the sight of the cougar explained the growling she heard last summer.

"I called the police and they thought I was crazy," she said. "They said it was probably a raccoon. I told them it was something huge ... And I was right."

There also had been several cougar sightings in the area, she said.

"But this is the first time he has been out here like this in daylight," she said.

For the next two hours, police watched the cat and the people. The cat kept fairly still, periodically swishing his tail.

At one point someone on the overpass yelled, "Don't shoot him!" Officers escorted the young man away from the area.

At 10:40 a.m., some two hours after the cougar was reported, a rifle shot broke the relative silence, causing the cat to the fall from the tree. Three more shots followed in quick succession.

All three agencies conferred before making the decision to kill the cougar, explained Mark Vargas, district wildlife biologist with the ODFW.

"You have a large predator in a town and somebody had to take care of it," he said. "Obviously, safety was involved when you have a cougar in town in the daylight hours."

Had the officers used a tranquilizer gun, the cat would have been euthanized, because the department doesn't relocate them, Vargas said, citing the relative large population of cougars already in the state. However, the use of a tranquilizer in a city also increases the potential for the cat to escape and injure someone, he added.

An examination of the cougar showed it was a juvenile male weighing 761/2; pounds, he said. A necropsy found nothing out of the ordinary.

"Young males typically disperse a little more than other cats," he said. "But Ashland is up against a forested area. There is always a cougar or two living around the area. Over the years we've had cougar attacks on goats and people's cats."

No one wanted to shoot the cat, said Sgt. Kirk Meyer, an OSP game officer.

"None of us like to see wildlife taken unnecessarily," he stressed. "But in this case, there is a big human safety factor to consider. He was right here in a populated area in town."

There was no easy escape route into a wild area for the cat, he said.

"If he had come down out of there and attacked a little kid, we would all regret that," he said. "So we have to err on the side of caution."

The location was within the ODFW's administrative cougar take area, which factors in human safety, he said.

"There was no good reason to suffer the risk of leaving him there throughout the day and tonight," Meyer said.

Ashland police Lt. Corey Falls agreed.

"The balance is keeping the community safe and doing what's best for the animal," Falls said. "When animals come this far down into town, we have to make sure our citizens are safe first."

Officers from both the Ashland Police Department and OSP were involved in the shooting, he said.

"At the request of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and after conferring with them and the Oregon State Police, that was determined the best course of action," he said.

Sgt. Alderman noted that most cougars reported in the Ashland area are found on the mountainous side of the town, particularly in areas where there are few homes.

"Those we just leave alone," he said.

Mobile home park resident Stacy Smith hated to see the cougar shot but accepted the rationale.

"The Ashland police didn't want to shoot — nobody wanted to," she said. "We're glad we're all safe now. But it was a gorgeous cougar. It's sad they had to kill him."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

An Ashland police officer takes aim at a young adult cougar on the railroad bridge near the corner of Clay Street and Ashland Street Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch