SPOKANE, Wash. — The Inland Northwest is growing fast and it's starting to push us uncomfortably close to our wild neighbors: cougars.
According to the most recent U.S. Census population estimates, the county has almost 550,000 people living in it. Many of those new faces are from out of state and may not be as familiar with some of the region's more dangerous residents.
Many are hitting the trail around Spokane for a walk on the wild side as summer creeps in, but they're not the only ones comfortable out in Mother Nature. The area is filled with wildlife, including cougars.
Nowadays, it seems like more and more people are noticing them.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), as more people move into Spokane County, they're bringing in more technology that can capture the wandering felines on camera.
"So as people move into those areas, it's inevitable that they're going to see more wildlife," said Staci Lehman, the WDFW Communications Manager. "And then there's a lot of social media posts, you know, which we didn't have in the past."
According to Lehman, however, the area's seen a drop in cougar sighting reports being made to WDFW.
In 2018, WDFW documented 145 incidents involving cougars in Spokane County. Those incidents range from unconfirmed sightings to confirmed depredation. That number dropped to 126 in 2019, 103 in 2020, 79 in 2021 and 61 in 2022.
This year, there's been 36 incidents throughout the county. However, Lehman said the smaller numbers could be attributed to several factors.
"It might signal more of an acceptance that, 'Hey, the cougars are here, we moved into their habitat,'" she said. "But also a lot of people, like I said, are either telling each other, they're putting it on social media and they don't always think to call the department."
Most of the 2023 reports are unconfirmed sightings, with one on South Hill near Trader Joe's and another in Spokane Valley near University High School. According to WDFW, the Spokane Valley sighting ended up being a house cat.
There have been confirmed sightings this year as well, especially close to Newman Lake. There have also been confirmed depredations, which usually means a cougar kills livestock.
It's often those calls where Kalispel Tribe Wildlife Program Manager Bart George comes in.
"2018 and '19, we saw a major increase in cougar depredations and incidents and public safety callouts and things like that," he said. "So when there's a public safety call out, we have to respond. We take the dogs out, catch the cat."
If a cougar's been killing pets or livestock, that usually means lethal removal.
"That got to be where in 2019, I think we killed almost 70 cats just in Spokane, Pend Oreille and Stevens County," George said. "So a fairly small area."
The tribe became interested in seeing if they could get ahead of the incidents and be proactive rather than just responding to cougar incidents. Right now, George is in charge of the tribe's cougar study, which aims to see if hazing a cougar will change its behavior.
"We get the call and come out and capture that cat, put a collar on it, and then run it through this aversive conditioning hazing study to see if we can modify its behavior and increase its sort of sensitivity to human presence," he explained.
While some of the hazing tactics - which include using barking dogs and paintball guns - might be considered harsh, George says they're seeing some of the cougars they're tracking move farther and faster away from humans.
"I think it has promise," he explained. "I think the management implication would be some kind of call out to aversively condition these animals and hopefully save their lives and also save that landowner some heartache with their pets and livestock."
With so many new people now living in the area, however, it's not just up to WDFW and George to protect and manage the boundary between cougars and humans; it's also up to the average person.
"We want the humans to do their part to avoid conflict, too," Lehman said. "So don't feed wild animals, that just causes more problems. It brings in the cute animals that are followed by the bigger animals with larger teeth."
"Ultimately, we're going to have to live together," said George. "We have to share this space."
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