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One fatal cougar attack is not a trend

What is believed to be Oregon’s first ever fatal attack by a cougar in the wild is sure to reignite the divisive debate over cougar hunting and the official policy of killing problem predators. The death of Gresham resident Diana Bober, 55, who was found near a remote trail in the Mount Hood National Forest on Monday, is a tragedy, but it’s important to keep the incident in perspective.

Bober was an avid hiker who frequently set off alone — something wildlife experts recommend against in cougar country. Even so, encounters between cougars and humans are rare because the elusive cats generally avoid contact.

Oregon law has banned the hunting of cougars with hounds for 25 years. Supporters of the practice say it is necessary to control cougar populations; opponents consider it cruel. What is undeniable is that the cougar population has increased since hound hunting was outlawed. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the state’s cougar population at 6,600.

Despite the increase in cougars, and the increase in the number of people living near forested areas and the number recreating outdoors, this is still the first known fatal attack by a wild cougar in the state. The death of one person hiking alone is not a trend.

State wildlife officials were searching for the cougar on Friday, hampered by wet conditions and the passage of time. Bober left on her hike Aug. 29, her family reported her missing Sept. 7, and her body was found three days after that. Her sister said she appeared to have fought off the cougar, and died some time later. The cougar did not return. Cougars travel long distances, and the animal responsible for the attack was likely many miles away before searchers even set out to try to track it.

Even if trackers find and kill a cougar in the general area, there is no guarantee it will be the right one. Officials hope DNA from any cougar they kill can be compared to animal DNA recovered from Bober’s wounds at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland. But even that is not assured.

State law allows the killing of “problem” cougars — animals that appear to have lost their fear of humans, or have attacked pets or livestock. And cougars can still be hunted, just not with dogs.

In 2016, 169 problem cougars were reported killed in the state, and hunters killed 267. Neither number seems excessive. Trying to track down the first wild cougar to kill a human in Oregon is not an unreasonable response, although it’s unlikely to be successful.

Going forward, hikers should heed the advice of experts: Don’t hike alone, and if you see a cougar, it will likely flee. If it doesn’t, don’t run. Act large and intimidating. If it approaches, throw rocks and sticks, and if it attacks, fight back.

Bober did that, her sister says, but it wasn’t enough to save her.

With any luck, her death will remain just one of very few fatal cougar encounters nationwide.

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