Cougar encounters on the rise, hunters say

By ED MERRIMAN, Baker City Herald September 12, 2008 04:27 pm

With the cougar population increasing in Northeastern Oregon, reports of cougars stalking people are raising concerns that the big cats might be losing their fear of humans.

A ranch hand from the Haines area reported being stalked by a cougar along the North Powder River, and two days later a bow hunter with ties to Baker County reported killing a cougar near Ukiah after it stalked him on Aug. 30, the first day of the hunting season.

Those are just two of a growing list of cougar sightings and encounters reported recently in Northeastern Oregon.

In the Haines cougar stalking incident, Sebastian Combs, 28, was sitting in a tree stand scouting for deer and elk when he saw a pair of eyes staring at him from a patch of brush.

“At first I thought it was a deer or elk, but when I put my binoculars on it, I saw it was a cougar,” Combs said.

His stand was set up along the North Powder River west of Haines, near the base of the Elkhorns.

“It was right before dark. You couldn’t really see it with the naked eye, but with binoculars I saw this big old cat. I didn’t have anything with me but my pocketknife, and the cougar was positioned between me and my four-wheeler,” Combs said.

Combs said he thought about staying in the stand, about 12 feet up the tree, until the cougar left, but with darkness closing in he decided to climb down and walk away from the cougar while it was still light enough to see the cat.

“When I come down out of the tree, he saw me and went in the crouch mode and came toward me,” Combs said. “I have seen cougars before, and I just yelled and they ran way.

“This one didn’t do that. I was yelling and waving my arms the whole time I was walking, but he didn’t run away,” Combs said. “He crossed the river to come toward me. That’s what made me a little nervous.”

Instead of trying to walk north past the cougar to get to his four-wheeler, Combs walked to the west, through a small field.

As he walked fast through the field, Combs said he saw the cougar circling around him to the northwest, on a path that would soon intersect his escape route.

“I could see him slinking through the meadow. He was moving pretty fast,” Combs said.

“All I had with me was my pocket knife, a penlight and my cell phone,” Combs said. “I had about 20 feet around me where if he jumped I could see him.”

Combs, an 6-foot 5-inch, 220-pound former Marine with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he figured he’d put up a good fight if the cougar attacked. But he wished he’d brought his .45-caliber pistol.

Combs said there was no cell phone service from his tree stand, but he knew he could get a signal if he could get to the road.

By the time he reached the road, the cougar was within 70 feet.

“I called my dad on the cell and told him I needed backup,” Combs said. By that time it was so dark all he could see of the cougar were glimpses of the cat moving through the grass.

“Dad showed up with two pistols and we walked together back to the four-wheeler,” Combs said.

Combs said his parents live about 300 yards from the spot where he saw the cougar Aug. 28, two days before the start of bow season.

The next morning, before heading off to work in the the hay fields, Combs took his pistol and went looking for cougar tracks. What he found sent a chill down his back — two sets of cougar tracks.

One set was made by a large cougar with paws the size of his hands, and the second set of prints appeared to be from a smaller cougar.

The cougar stalking incident and the tracks are near an area where his mother and some neighbors used to walk their dogs in the evenings.

“They don’t do that anymore,” Combs said.

Two days after Combs’ encounter, Chad Davis, a bow hunter hunting with Robby Porter of Baker City, shot and killed a cougar with an arrow after the cat came with 15 yards of him.

“This is the the fourth or fifth time this guy has seen or had encounters with cougars,” Porter said, referring to Davis, a 1989 Baker High School graduate who lives in Hermiston.

Like Combs, Davis was in a tree stand when he noticed a pair of eyes staring back at him, but it was opening morning of bow hunting season and unlike Combs, Davis was armed with a bow.

“We’d seen a lot of cougar signs, but we didn’t realize he was that close,” Davis said.

Davis said he first noticed the cougar when it was about 100 yards away, but since he was 16 feet off the ground and had his bow, he wasn’t too concerned.

All morning, whenever deer and elk came by, Davis said animals would come within 100 to 200 yards of the tree stand, then stop, lift their heads, sniff around and run off.

“One spike came out of the water and I called him back to around 50 yards, but he wouldn’t get any closer,” Davis said.

Around 11 a.m. Davis said he climbed down from his stand to eat lunch. He hadn’t seen the cougar for a while.

After returning to his  stand, Davis saw the cougar again, and during the afternoon the cat gradually edged its way closer to the tree stand.

“Around 3 o’clock (p.m.) I was calling a cow in. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I saw this big male cat. He was crawling through the grass at me and was moving in under my tree stand. I ranged him at 18 yards,” Davis said.

“I stood up and shot him through the left shoulder. The arrow went right through him. He ran off about 50 yards and collapsed,” Davis said.

That was Davis’ second close encounter with a cougar in the Ukiah unit, and he’s also sighted cougars stalking him on on three other occasions over the years, in the Meacham area, in the Eagle Caps and in the Elkhorns.

Porter said he suspects it may be a combination of Davis’ elk calls and the elk scent he wears when he’s hunting that attracts cougars to him.

 Davis said more hunters have been reporting cougar sightings or encounters since voters approved Measure 18 in 1994 outlawing hunters from using dogs to track cougars, except when the ODFW authorizes a hunt for a dangerous cougar.

“They’re everywhere,” Davis said, adding that in areas where cougar populations are thick, the deer populations have been decimated.

James Cadwell, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife assistant district wildlife biologist in Union County, said cougar populations have soared in Northeastern Oregon and across much of the state since 1994 when voters approved a ban on use of hounds in hunting cougars.

“In the past 12 years we’ve had more sightings, more public safety concerns and more damage complaint calls” from cattlemen and sheep producers, as well as people whose pets were attacked or killed by cougars.

When it comes to humans encountering cougars, Cadwell said most of the cases involve hunters.

Since use of hounds for tracking and treeing cougars was banned, Cadwell said most cougar kills happen when a deer or elk hunter comes across a cougar and kills it.

“With the loss of dogs, hunters are our primary control of cougars and bears,” Cadwell said.

He said the ODFW lowered cougar tag prices from $50 to $10 after the hound ban passed in hopes more hunters would buy a tag.

According to the ODFW’s cougar management plan, which the state adopted in 2006, cougar tag sales increased from 576 in 1994 to 11,323 in 2004. Even so, the cougar population has doubled and even tripled in some areas since 1994, despite the huge increase in the numbers of cougar tags sold.

Before 1994, cougar hunts were controlled, meaning the state limited the number of tags it sold. Most cougar hunting seasons lasted for a month to several weeks.

Since then, however, ODFW has changed cougar hunting to a general season, which means anyone can buy a tag, and there are no limits on the number of tags sold. The cougar season is open for 10 months of the year, too.

Don Whittaker, ODFW’s cougar specialist, said hunters killed 308 cougars statewide in 2007, 20 more than the year before.

That’s more than twice as many cougars as hunters killed in 1994.

Whittaker said cougars were nearly extinct in Oregon in the 1960s when bounties were paid to cougar hunters who used hounds to tree and kill them.

When the bounty ended and ODFW began managing cougars as a game animal in 1967, the statewide cougar population was estimated at 214. ODFW estimated the cougar population had grown to 3,114 by 1994 and was still increasing when the hound ban took effect.

Since then, Whittaker said, the state’s cougar population has nearly doubled to around 6,000.