The Cougars and Bears among Us

by Kirie Pedersen, Guest Writer

Around 11,000 black bears and perhaps 200 cougars, also known as puma or mountain lions, live on the Olympic Peninsula. You could be a few feet from a cougar or bear and not know it. They avoid people and are generally not dangerous to hikers. Who are these carnivores that live among us in relative silence?

Some insights were recently provided when Hood Canal Adventures, a local business focusing on wildlife educa- tion, hosted a free presentation at the Brinnon Community Center. Wildlife biologist Darrell Smith, who is director of Western Wildlife Outreach (WWO) joined Andrew Stratton, a field technician with Panthera and the Olympic Cougar Project, to educate locals about the largest carni- vores with which we share our space. Andrew Stratton showed slides of research on the current cougar population and habitat range.

WWO and Panthera are education-based and conservation research nonprofits. The Olympic Cougar Project is a large research project co-led by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Panthera, in collaboration with five other tribes and Washington State Department of Transportation.

Despite being carnivores, only ten percent of what black bears eat is meat. “If you see a torn-up stump in the woods, you probably have bear,” Smith explained. Stumps and logs are like bear tacos, providing salamanders, grubs, and other biomass. In spring, black bears consume mostly grass and flowering plants, adding ants, bees, and grubs by summer. Toward autumn, they shift toward fruits, berries, and nuts, and continue to eat a variety of plants.

“Although cougars predate on deer and female elk, they also eat beaver, coyotes, rabbits, rodents, raccoons, and mice,” Smith said. “Cougars increase an ecosystem’s health and biodiversity by leaving behind carrion for other animals. When beetles and other insects finish off the carcass, it breaks down to nourish the soil, which in turn provides plant habitat.”

How dangerous are our local black bears and cougars? In the past 100 years, despite a doubling of human population, Washington state had two human fatalities due to cougars. The last death caused by a black bear was in 1974.

Safety tips include hiking or biking in groups, talking or singing if alone, and carrying EPA approved bear spray. Keep dogs on leash and children close. In the rare event of a confrontation, stay facing the animal, speak calmly, and slowly back away, providing the animal an escape route. Raise arms, jackets, back packs, or sticks to appear larger.

More Info

For more information on bear and cougar habitat and research projects, visit westernwildlife.org.
Also, panthera.org, or Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats.