Imagine hiking along a forest trail on a bright, still August morning. All is profoundly quiet. Suddenly, the distinct feeling of being watched sharpens your attention. Then a tree squirrel begins an insistent chatter 50 yards away, and the forest is no longer silent. The pup-pup alarm of a chipmunk starts up—closer this time. Then a jay erupts—even closer. Since most forest animals retreat from people, you realize these alarms might be triggered by an animal that is willing to approach because it is very curious and also sure of its ability to remain hidden. Is it a cougar? You turn in the direction of the squawking jay, stare into the trees, raise your hiking sticks above your head, and speak firmly: “I know who you are. Now you know who I am.”

Moments later you hear the receding alarms of squirrels reporting the unseen cougar’s progress as it goes on its way. Farther along the path, you find a fresh track of the big cat in the dust, and feel the indescribable thrill of connection to this iconic wild animal that shares the forest peacefully with us every day.

During these times of COVID-19 and social distancing, more of us are spending time outdoors than ever before. Klickitat County—like approximately half of Washington state—is home to our native cats. They are naturally elusive and skilled at avoiding people, but increased outdoor activity increases our chances of seeing a cougar, even though humans have cut Washington’s cougar population in half since 2003. Knowing what to do is important for protection of people, livestock, pets, and cougars too.

Too often killed out of fear and misunderstanding, cougars are a life-sustaining presence in nature. Their main prey are elk and deer. It takes several days for a cougar to consume this large prey, which nourishes many other creatures. Scientists have learned that up to two thirds of cougar kills are eaten by bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, fishers, skunks, porcupines, ravens, and beneficial insects.

Cougars maintain healthy sizes of deer and elk herds, preventing overly large and hungry herds that suffer disease and starvation, raid crops, and demolish vegetation along riverbanks. In turn, that vegetation shades streams and protects riverbanks from erosion, allowing salmon to thrive. Cougars are called “ecosystem engineers” for their role in creating a healthy food web.

We too often interfere in devastating ways. Juvenile cougars spend their first 18 to 24 months with their mother, learning to hunt wild prey and avoid humans, pets, and livestock. If the mother is killed, those cubs lack the critical knowledge that protects them and us.

Because adults are largely territorial, when humans kill an established adult cougar, several adolescents often arrive to compete for the vacated territory. These numerous, inexperienced, sometimes desperate young cougars can increase negative interactions with people as they seek “easier” prey like livestock and pets.

A person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a cougar. But pay attention out there, and if you do encounter a cougar, it’s best to:

  • Maintain distance, do not approach or corner a cougar, never offer it food.
  • Make yourself appear large; stand tall, spread your arms or coat, raise sticks.
  • Make lots of noise. Back away, do not turn around and run.
  • Carry a portable air horn and keep it always accessible. In an emergency, bear spray can chase off a cougar exhibiting signs of aggression (not leaving, crouching with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching, and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump).
  • Cougar kittens can look like domestic cats. Do not approach animals in the wild.

The Mountain Lion Foundation (mountainlion.org) provides useful information about cougars and how to respond to them. Though cougars seldom harm people, any negative interaction with humans typically leads to a dead cougar. It’s important to understand and coexist with these native animals so we can maintain their irreplaceable presence for future generations.

Michelle Blake is a longtime journalist and freelance writer, with decades of experience as a wildlife advocate. As Western Region I Coordinator for the Mountain Lion Foundation she oversees California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico.