Livestock owners on farms between Sandlin and Sevenmile roads are on edge after six sheep and a steer were killed by a mountain lion, otherwise known as a cougar, in a little more than a month.
The predator was fatally shot Aug. 23 by the owner of a steer it is believed to have killed about four weeks earlier.
The big cat reportedly returned to the property on Chenowith Creek, near Browns Creek, and was seen near the cattle herd.
“We’ve been told by (the Oregon Department of) Fish and Wildlife that it was probably the same cougar but they can’t guarantee it,” said Elaine Gaither, who lives on Sandlin Road.
Her ram, a purebred St. Croix Hair Sheep, was killed during the first week of August by a cougar who jumped over an 8-foot wire deer fence during the night.
“I never knew they could jump that high but we found cougar hair on the bottom wire of the fence,” said Gaither. “We didn’t hear the dogs barking or have any kind of warning.”
A couple nights later the cougar struck again, killing three ewes on the Sandlin Road farm of Nancy Vergori.
“I walked up to the sheep pen and my sheep were all crowded together in the corner like they were scared,” she said. “I found three of my ewes dead and I was in shock.”
She said the slaughter was fresh so she herded the frightened sheep toward the house because she was afraid the mountain lion was still around.
“I looked through the trees and I would see the shadow of an animal head with ears and I thought, ‘Am I imagining things or is that a cougar?”
An ODFW agent set a trap with one of the dead ewes inside but the cougar didn’t take the bait.
“I put a radio out on my deck now to make noise and I turn on the outside lights,” said Vergori. “I have to walk down to the chicken coop at night so I make a lot of noise – I’m pretty edgy.”
Eleven days after her ewes were killed, about August 19, Vergori said friends who were getting the irrigation water going in her orchard thought they saw a cougar.
A head count of her sheep showed another ewe missing and its remains were found nearby.
“My sheep are a source of income and I have five left now,” said Vergori. “I’ve been warned that my sheep aren’t safe as long as there is no barn for them but I can’t afford that right now.
“I put a radio out on my deck now to make noise and I turn on the outside lights. I have to walk down to the chicken coop at night so I make a lot of noise – I’m pretty edgy.”
Gaither has installed numerous motion sensor lights to scare away a predator.
“I feel very nervous right now” she said. “I like to sit out in the garden at night but I haven’t been doing that, and I don’t go out before it gets light in the morning. I’m very cautious.”
She believes she saw the mountain cat from a distance a couple of days before the attack, but she mistook the animal for a large coyote.
“I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen any sign of cougar before,” she said.
She said deer in the area were acting spooked right before the ram was killed, which she again attributed to the presence of a coyote.
“I think the cougar was stalking my animals,” she said. “I don’t know why it would go to so much effort to attack our sheep because there are plenty of deer around.”
Gaither said she keeps an eye on what her farm animals are doing now because, if they act nervous, she knows that a predator could be nearby.
Jeremy Thompson, biologist for ODFW’s office in The Dalles, said the cougar shot by the steer owner was a young male between 120-130 pounds. He said it is possible the mountain lion had just left its mother and was looking to establish a territory by following deer herds.
In total, he said ODFW dealt with four separate landowners – there was a sixth sheep kill – from July 20 through the third week in August.
“We’re fairly certain we got the right cougar because there haven’t been any more confirmed sightings or reported depredation,” he said.
In 1994, Oregon voters banned the use of dogs and traps in hunting and the cougar population has since doubled.
Thompson said ODFW estimates there are now about 6,200 cougars in the state. He said mountain lions are solitary animals except when a mother has cubs to care for or young siblings strike out together in search of unclaimed territory.
“Mountain lions follow their prey and deer are their prey,” he said. “They live everywhere and, as their population grows, they move in closer to urban areas to find unclaimed territory.”
A cougar will usually claim three to five square miles as its territory and males may overlap their area with several females, according to Thompson.
“Cougars are a premiere athlete but they have to be pretty cautious about what they approach because if they twist an ankle or otherwise get hurt so they are unable to hunt, they die,” said Thompson.
State law allows people to kill a cougar if it is threatening livestock or has been seen on multiple occasions wandering around in the daylight hours.
Because the animals are nocturnal, Thompson said a repeat appearance in the full light of day usually means the cougar has lost its wariness toward humans and could be a threat.
ODFW works with agents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services office in Oregon when there are possible cougar kills. Officials look for tracks and other evidence that will confirm the type of predator.
Wasco County contributes funding for the service of an agent, who also works in Jefferson and Crook counties.
Thompson said ODFW has no programs to provide compensation to landowners who receive wildlife damage. Livestock owners can apply for compensation from the Oregon Department of Agriculture for wolf kills only.
He said using lights at night to keep cougars away from livestock is a good move undertaken by Gaither and Vergori. He said guard dogs are also helpful because they generate enough noise to drive secretive mountain lions away.
Having farm animals locked up at night is the best way to avoid losses from a predator, said Thompson.
He said domestic pets should be kept indoors from dusk to dawn and fed indoors.
Cougars are known to be most active at dawn so Thompson said people should keep an eye on their pets if they let them go outdoors.
He said ODFW has the option of donating the meat of a euthanized predator to charity or allowing the livestock owner to keep it. In this case, he said the owner of the steer was allowed to keep the remains.