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Ashland cougar causes social-media stir

A husky-looking cougar was caught Sunday morning on a 14-second video, slinking in full view through a backyard along Hargadine Street in Ashland.

The animal did no harm to humans or pets, but it did create some viral chat on social media.

In the video, the creature cautiously emerges from bushes and keeps its gaze fixed on the person aiming an iPhone through a window. The couple who shot the video were visiting from California and have returned home, said the owner of the property, who did not want to be named (names have been removed from previous version). The video had gained 149,000 views on Facebook as of Thursday evening.

The owner did say he believes a cougar earlier killed a deer in his front yard — and he’s heard of several deer carcasses found around town in recent weeks.

From his apartment building only a few yards above the filmed spot, Wes Mann said he wasn’t terrified of the cougar, but he and two friends did walk home from a restaurant the previous evening crowded close together with their iPhone lights flashing and making a lot of noise, which they’ve heard helps to scare cougars off.

“It’s important to co-exist with them and realize we’re in their territory,” said Mann. “I would hope they wouldn’t have to be destroyed.”

Another resident of the apartment block, who declined to give her name, said, “I don’t feel something should be done about it. I hope they don’t do anything to the cougar. Let it live. We’re in the interface of town and the wild and have to learn to live with it. The video helps create awareness that we’re here in a lovely natural environment, and this is part of it.”

Mann said they were reassured on their walk home the area was cougar-free for the moment because they saw a doe grazing in a yard.

He suggested the possibility of relocating the predator, but wildlife biologist Steve Niemela of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said cougars are not relocated because they are very territorial, requiring 100 square miles to live in — and dropping them somewhere else causes a big upset in their system and may transport disease to new areas.

“Oregon has never had a confirmed attack on a person (by a cougar). Colorado and California have. We have a good safety record,” said Niemela, “but I would hesitate to predict what any wildlife would do.”

ODFW received 80 calls last year regarding cougars, some about the animals bothering sheep and goats, Niemela said. Sightings may be increasing because of the proliferation of iPhones that capture pictures and send posts on social media.

“Ashland has a long history of cougars,” he said. “It’s always disconcerting to see such a large predator in close proximity with people. Unfortunately, in a city like Ashland, where you have an abundance of prey species, such as deer, you’re going to have predators.”

The Ashland watershed and the forests beyond are good habitat for cougars. But when male cougars grow up, the territory is already staked out, he said, so the younger ones are squeezed out. Some end up hunting in town, which cougars consider “subprime,” he added.

While some people think cougars are the culprit in all deer kills, people should realize that coyotes and dogs do their share of the work.

“A lot of people don’t know what their unleashed dogs are up to at night,” he said.

If you encounter a cougar, Niemela advises to make yourself big, make noise, lift up any small children, keep eye contact and back away slowly. Cougars fear humans and generally will hide, but residents should still use caution.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.