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Killing cougar 'really the only option'

A cougar that has been seen multiple times during daylight hours — such as the one shot and killed by Medford police early Sunday morning — can be classified as a threat to human safety, according to state law.

“Loss of wariness to humans, displayed through repeated sightings of the animal during the day near a permanent structure, permanent corral or mobile dwelling used by humans” is one of four signs listed that the animal is a threat, according to ORS 498.166. Because of several problems that can arise from tranquilizing and relocating such an animal, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said killing it was the best option.

“We’ve had a number of sightings now of this animal,” said ODFW district wildlife biologist Steve Niemela. “And unfortunately the area it’s been seen in is not only near residences and structures, but essentially, there are a lot of kids around there. In some places, there’s a big transient population. So in that situation, when the decision has been reached to remove the animal, really the only option available to us is a lethal removal.”

The cougar killed Sunday, identified as a 102-pound male — which was mistakenly identified as a female Sunday — was spotted in thick brush that runs along the Sovana Inn’s east side. At about 3 a.m., police killed the animal, and it was later transported to ODFW facilities.

“Based on the heavy pedestrian foot traffic, the proximity to people and patrons of neighboring businesses, and it being observed in the same area on multiple occasions, the decision was made to dispatch the animal,” said a Medford police Facebook post about the incident. “We would like to say that this decision was not made lightly. Dispatching an animal is always our last resort.”

Many people commented on the post — 882 comments were posted as of Monday afternoon — to express either anger or support for the department’s action, with many who were upset about the decision asking why the animal could not have been tranquilized and relocated to a woodland area.

Animals that are relocated typically will return, ODFW officials said. In 2009, for example, a young bear discovered in a tree at Medford’s Lone Pine Elementary playground was trapped and transported to northeastern Klamath County. The animal traveled back to the area — 78 miles in 10 days — and was shot legally by a hunter less than 2 miles from the same school.

Naturally territorial cougars can also mistakenly be introduced into another cougar’s territory, which can lead to fights. In addition, if an animal is relocated, it’s unlikely there won’t be people in its new vicinity.

“Out in our wilderness areas, there are people frequently recreating in those areas,” Niemela said. “This animal will be coming into contact with people again.”

Niemela added that there have been cases where ODFW has used a tranquilizer dart to immobilize an animal, and then it is euthanized off site.

“The difference there is if we’re darting it, it’s really just because there’s not an opportunity for an officer to get a safe shot off,” he said.

When cougar sightings started being reported last week, ODFW officials said they had been in contact with Medford police and Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, with the agencies making a plan for what to do about the animal, which had been seen multiple times around town, including Bear Creek Park, near Rooster’s and next to the Sovana Inn.

“On Friday, we all kind of came to the conclusion that if this animal is seen again, that it would have crossed that legal threshold, and that it would need to be removed lethally,” Niemela said.

Cougars can be “surprisingly good,” moving through urban environments, Niemela said, with spaces like the Bear Creek Greenway providing easy entry and exit points. Cougar attacks on people are rare, with one fatality in Oregon’s history recorded last year on a Mount Hood National Forest trail.

“That said, where you tend to have problems is where you have animals that are constantly getting habituated to people,” Niemela said. “They’re seeing people; they’re getting used to people. Those are the ones that you worry about.”

When cougars are sighted in urban environments, the best thing people can do is attempt to scare them off, Niemela said.

“If you can safely do it, beep the horn at it, yell at it,” he said. “The more people can try to scare these animals off, and let them know that they’re really not welcome in town, we can try and avoid using lethal removal.”

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.

Submitted photo by Laurie CorvachoPolice are seen near the Sovana Inn early Sunday, where a cougar was killed by police.