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In West, Close Encounters of the Cougar Kind

As 'ranchettes' and other developments encroach on wilderness, animals get up close and personal.

The late Wallace Stegner, arguably the best writer of the American West, once observed that "Westerners live outdoors more than people elsewhere, because outdoors is mainly what they've got."

While Europe has its cathedrals and New York its theaters and museums, the West has mountains and deserts and rivers to enliven the spirit and enrich the soul. And, when you live outdoors, you inevitably have animal encounters.

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Like the bobcat my neighbor saw a few blocks from here last week. He was out for a run and came upon the big cat sitting on a fence near another neighbor's house.

It made the local news, but it wasn't all that unusual. Walking our dogs in the same forested area, which is just up the hill from the town center, we've often seen bear scat. A fellow dog-walker has seen a bobcat there.

In the years I've lived in the West, I've crossed paths with bobcats, rattlesnakes, and a bear that broke into my car while I slept in a tent 20 feet away. (This event involved a disputed loaf of French bread locked in the trunk.)

I haven't come across a cougar yet, but it may only be a matter of time. And that prospect puts a different light on how one thinks about the great outdoors.

In the late 1960s, the cougar population in Oregon was down to about 200 animals. Today, wildlife experts estimate, there are between 3,500 and 4,000 cougars - also known as mountain lions - in the state.

The same is true in other Western states - California has some 5,000 now - and it's meant increasing numbers of encounters between humans and a species that clearly has the potential to be higher up the food chain then we are.

Two children hiking in Montana this summer have been attacked by cougars, and a boy was killed by one in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado last year. Parts of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park near San Diego were closed last week due to three instances when it appeared that a mountain lion was stalking hikers.

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"We get cougar complaints weekly now," says Rod Krischke, assistant state director of the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency in Oregon. And it's not just from ranchers complaining about calves and lambs being devoured or hikers in parks and wilderness areas being frightened by sightings.

There also have been more instances of cougars seen near - or even in the middle of - populated areas. One was killed earlier this year not far from the city hall in Olympia, Wash., and another was seen this month in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle. Parents began driving their children to school when a cougar was spotted near a grade school in Medford, Ore., a city of about 45,000 people.

Why the increase in big cat populations?

Up until the 1960s and '70s, such animals were seen as predators. "Years ago, anybody who saw cougar shot it," Mr. Krischke says. "Now, people's feelings have changed." Since then, several states have banned sport hunting of mountain lions. Even in states, such as Montana, where they still are legally hunted, a limited number of tags are made available to hunters each year.

Human and cougar societies are changing, too. In those parts of the West where cougars are more likely to be found, most newcomers moving in are not hunters. And as states like Oregon, Montana, and Washington grow in population, five-acre "ranchettes" are pushing urban boundaries out into cougar country.

At the same time, less hunting has meant more cougars. Since the animals are very territorial, juveniles are often forced to hunt closer to what now has become human habitat. In the process, they become used to human presence.

Krischke of Wildlife Services tells of hiking with his children on a logging road not far from a housing development near Portland, Oregon. They came upon a cougar not more than 20 yards away. The cat, perhaps seeing he was outnumbered, decided to leave rather than attack.

Then, too, Krischke is a biologist who knows what to do in such circumstances: "Make yourself look as large and as menacing as possible, back away, and maintain strong eye contact."

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