Utah wildlife officials again seek bigger cougar hunt

Encounters with cougars in the Ogden Valley won't likely go down as the human population in the area grows. This undated photo of a cougar was taken at an unspecified location.

EDEN — Sean Healey had been following the neighborhood Facebook chatter about the cougar that had apparently been making the rounds around his Ogden Valley home.

Someone posted pictures of cougar footprints. Someone else posted nighttime security-camera footage of the animal in the area. The critter didn’t seem to be an imminent threat to area residents, but rather, the messages, Healey said, were meant as a “be-aware type of thing.”

Then, on Jan. 20, a Sunday, everything came to a head. “I heard the shot and I went out to investigate,” he said.

A hunter had shot and killed the big cat that had been lurking around the area, taking the animal down with the help of a guide in a wooded ravine in the Patio Springs section of Eden. Turns out the hunter, though possessing the proper permits, fired his weapon too close to homes, in violation of state law, and he and his guide got warnings from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, according to Trevor Doman, a DWR conservation officer.

But for Healey it went beyond that. The dangers posed by the animal seemed to be exaggerated in carrying out the hunt, on the urban-rural interface, where homes give way to rugged, undeveloped terrain that’s the domain of wild animals.

“I don’t think we should overreact to the presence or be surprised by the presence of predators from time-to-time,” he said. Sure, cats like cougars can pose a risk, he continued, but at the same time, “I don’t think they should all be killed just because they’re near us.”

He wonders if the animal could have been tranquilized instead and relocated.

More generally, the incident underscores another of the many consequences of population growth — humans increasingly edging into the land of wild animals, making for uncomfortable encounters on occasion. “There are always incidents with cougars because cougars are in the foothills and people are building homes in the foothills,” Doman said.

Last October, also in the Eden area, a cougar or cougars killed several goats and a domesticated cat in a series of attacks that were out of the norm. They appeared in daylight hours, not when it’s dark, also atypical, according to Doman. Worried about the unusual behavior, the DWR got involved and hunted down the cougars. They shot and killed one, concerned the seemingly strange activity would continue.

“Most of the time, cougars are very elusive and they don’t like to hang around people,” said Doman.

Mark Hadley, conservation outreach manager for the DWR, said the cougar or cougars had seemed to be losing fear of people, precipitating the agency’s intervention. Officials suspect that animals involved were juveniles still developing, factoring in the behavior.

Randy Merrill, an Eden-area resident, came across one of the cougars on Oct. 25 last year in a forested area adjacent to what was his home at the time. He took video of the animal from afar, a domestic cat dangling from its mouth, and the cougar seemed to look back before walking off.

Eden cougar

Screen grab from an Oct. 25, 2018, video taken by Randy Merrill of a cougar behind his Eden area home, holding a cat in its mouth. Two cougars, officials suspect, killed several goats in the area last October, including the domestic cat, prompting Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials to track the big cats, killing one of them. 

He had heard reports of the cougar attacks on goats but then “to have one out in the daylight, right out in front of your house where your kids play, that’s kind of scary,” he said. His kids, he said, had sometimes played on a trail near where he spotted the cougar.

While the October encounters were out of the norm, it still shows what can happen when development and homes creep into the wilds. And while encounters with deer are more common because there are more of them, Hadley said Utah has “a good, healthy population of cougars.” He doesn’t expect a decline in human encounters with cougars, still just a handful a year. If anything, Hadley maintains, they’ll hold steady or go up.

“It’s not an everyday occurrence, but it’s not uncommon,” he said. “It’s happening and it’s likely to continue.”

‘ELIMINATING A PROBLEM’

In deciding to launch the hunt for the cougar killed last month in the Patio Springs area, the guide had told Doman that the big cat was “causing havoc,” killing deer and dragging them for storage near homes. The large feline hadn’t attacked pets or livestock, though, usually the spur for involvement by the agency.

“He was thinking it was definitely a concern,” Doman said. As the guide saw it, according to Doman, he was “eliminating a problem before it became a huge problem.”

Since the guide was working with a hunter who had a permit and it’s cougar season, Doman had no grounds to hold them back. Only later did he discover the hunter had fired at the cougar within 600 feet of a home, in violation of state law, leading to the warnings against him and the guide.

Looking back, though, Healey wonders if the concerns about the cougar were overblown. In his view, the situation didn’t seem to rise to the level of the spate of big cat attacks last October.

“In my opinion, cougars killing deer, that’s fairly natural behavior,” he said. “I’m sure (cougars) have been around as I’ve been hiking and stuff. I’m just not sure they’re looking for trouble.”

Healey saw the hunters involved drag the cougar from the ravine where it was killed. Later, he came across pictures on Facebook of the apparent hunter holding the dead cougar, his arms wrapped around the big cat’s body just below its front legs, the animal’s long body dangling down.

If there’s a safety issue with a wild animal, “then you do what you have to,” said Scott Bye, associate director Voices of Wildlife, an animal advocacy group.

In general, though, he would rather see efforts to scare a wild animal away from where people are living if they’re uncomfortable with it. He also favors requiring that those who buy homes on the urban-rural interface sign disclosures acknowledging they’ll be in an area where wild animal sightings may happen, thus helping temper any alarm when such encounters occur.

Merrill, who had the close encounter with the cougar last October, moved, but still lives in the Eden area. He’s since taught his kids how to react if they come across a cougar — try to appear big to scare the cougar, don’t turn your back on the animal, back away slowly. He also makes sure they don’t play outside by themselves and that when hiking on trails that they don’t get too far ahead of others in the group.

Whatever the case, there’s only so much you can do and it hasn’t scared him away from the area. “We know it’s going to be part of living out here,” he said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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