Matter of perspective: Cougar isn't biggest after all

A photo making the rounds on Facebook is raising some eyebrows with its claim of a record-size cougar killed by state wildlife officials in Ukiah.

Strip away social media's embellishment of the story, and it becomes far less momentous — though not entirely untrue.

The somewhat grainy photo shows what no doubt appears to be a very large mountain lion, posed on a forest hillside with its massive head laid up on a big rock.

Behind the animal, an unidentified man wearing a blue flannel jacket crouches while curiously holding up two smaller rocks for the camera, as if for scale.

A caption on Facebook states the cougar was killed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, what they now believe is a "new state record." Users shared the image 2,628 times, with comments ranging from astounded to skeptical.

Yes, the photo is real. Yes, the cougar was spotted and killed in the Umatilla National Forest near Ukiah. But, thanks to a clever trick of photography and overblown narrative, it has become misleading.

Mark Kirsch, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Pendleton, recognizes the big cat as one the department killed Dec. 1 after it was reported by a miner working his camp along the upper drainage of Cable Creek. The cougar had taken down a cow elk and stashed the remains within a few feet of where the miner was digging, Kirsch said.

ODFW was at the tail end of a three-year project lowering the density of cougars within a target area of the management unit to better protect the low elk-calf ratio. That project since ended on Dec. 31.

The wildlife agent agreed to take the miner's picture with the cougar after it was killed. This particular male was actually very average in size, Kirsch said, weighing about 144 pounds and measuring 84 inches long.

"There's nothing special about the size," Kirsch said. "That's a good cruising weight for your typical adult male lion."

So how does it appear much larger in the photo? Kirsch said it's a popular trick used among hunters, who stand as far back behind their animal as they can so they appear smaller than their trophy.

"It's a perspective thing," he said. "Hunters do this all the time. The animal's body shows up bigger than you, once you're behind it."

Assistant district wildlife biologist Greg Rimbach said hunters are required to bring in a mountain lion within 10 days after they are killed so the department can take biological samples. The biggest one he's seen is 168 pounds.

The photo caused some discussion around the office, Rimbach said. His first impression was from the cougar's head, which appeared three times the size it should be.

"After you've seen 300 or more (mountain lions) sitting on a table, you can realize, 'Hey, wait a minute. This is an odd-looking deal,' " Rimbach said.

Richard Green, ODFW wildlife lab biologist in Corvallis, keeps records from across the state on every cougar harvested. Since 1987, he's had one come in at better than 200 pounds — just barely.

"If somebody has a 300-pound mountain lion, they better be bragging," Green said with a laugh.

Thanks to quick-spreading word on social media, Kirsch said this routine harvest has turned into a good fish tale.

"It's a very typical mountain lion. They very rarely are bigger than this," Kirsch said.

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