By Gary "Gus" Gustafson*
Not many people have the opportunity to observe a cougar in the wild. Other than during mating season or while raising their kittens, cougars are inherently solitary and go out of their way to avoid being seen. They also tend to be most active during the late evening and early morning hours when they are less visible to most of us. However, if you spend enough time in the outdoors, remain observant, and happen to be in the right place at the right time, you could be fortunate enough to see one in the wild.
It happened to me several years ago while on an early morning walk along the Metolius River. Suddenly I heard, and then spotted, several coyotes yipping like crazy while looking off in one direction. They paid no attention to me. Sure enough, a very healthy looking cougar soon emerged from the brush about 40 yards away, seemingly irritated by all the attention. It soon spotted me and immediately bounded gracefully away in the other direction through the pines with tail held high. The coyotes continued their noisy pursuit, probably trying to drive it out of their home territory.
It’s these rare occasions that help me appreciate why I live in Central Oregon. Even if you never observe a cougar in the wild, you know they are out there, giving our landscape a special dose of magic.
A recent sighting of a curious cougar from a wildlife camera at a Land Trust Preserve. Flip through the slides for an up close encounter with a cougar. If the slides do not appear above, click here.
In Central Oregon, cougars can be found almost anywhere, although never in high populations. Only a small portion of the estimated 3,000 to 6,000 cougars in Oregon reside in Central Oregon. Cougars are very territorial predators, with males patrolling an area of up to 100 square miles or more. Their primary food is deer, although they are very opportunistic, also taking elk, rabbits, raccoons, turkey, grouse, beaver, squirrel or whatever is available. Usually wherever there are deer, you’re liable find cougars.
Cougars tend to be ambush hunters, stalking and seizing their prey with powerful jaws and claws. They range from 75 to 250 lbs and about 3.5 to 6.5 ft in length, with males slightly larger than females. The tail is about one-third of the total body length. Cougars breed year-round with litters of 1-6 kittens that will remain with the mother for one year or longer. The average lifespan of a cougar is about 10 years in the wild. In spite of an increase in cougar hunting for sport in Oregon, the cougar population in Central Oregon is considered stable.
I look forward to watching for this charismatic critter along the Metolius River and via the Land Trust's wildlife camera.
Another cougar sighting at a Land Trust preserve. Click the arrows on the right to see how the cougar moves through the preserve. If the slides do not appear below, click here.
*Gary "Gus" Gustafson is a senior environmental and regulatory consultant living in Camp Sherman. A native Oregonian, Gus is a certified Oregon Master Naturalist who enjoys beginning each day at home with a walk along the nearby Metolius River. A former state agency director and elected city mayor, Gus now volunteers time as a hike leader for the Deschutes Land Trust and serves on several boards and commissions. Gus is particularly interested in identifying, observing and photographing the wide variety of fish and wildlife species found in central Oregon.