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How does a cougar end up on Vashon Island?

A cougar at Northwest Trek Credit: Jim L/Flickr

At first glance, it looks like just another sad missing pet sign, tacked beside the front-porch entrance to the Coffee Roasterie on Vashon Island. It’s not. It says, “found cat,” and when you look closer, you see a photograph of the feline in question: tawny coat, long tail, upright ears. It’s a cougar.

Somebody’s joking about the recent appearance of a big cat on the island.

How did a cougar wind up on Vashon Island? It swam. Presumably it crossed the cold salt water of Colvos Passage, paddling a mile or so east from the Kitsap Peninsula. Forget what you think you know about cats and water: Cougars swim all the time.

The big cats are “known to swim lakes and rivers within their home ranges rather routinely,” says Brian Kertson, a cougar expert with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Up north in the Vancouver Island archipelago,” Kertson says, “they will swim from island to island.”

The Vashon Nature Center’s website cites reports of cougars swimming to Vashon Island a century ago, and of cougars being seen and killed at Cross Landing on the west side of the island, where they had presumably emerged from the water.

Kertson assumes this current cat is a male, and from its photographs, he figures it’s no more than 2 years old. Why assume it’s male? Because “dispersing” — setting out to seek one’s fortune, or at least find a mate — is what young male cougars do. A male has a large home range — 50 to 150 square miles — and a mature male would beat up on a young one that hung around.
Even a young male’s mom will push him out, explains Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest, a group involved with protecting wildlife and wild lands. Not letting it stay close to home is ultimately vital to preserving genetic diversity, Werntz explains. So a young male cougar heads out in search of a female in territory that’s not yet taken. He will walk through miles of mountains, cross borders and, yes, swim miles along the way.

It all sounds kind of like the Coasters’ 1957 hit, “Searchin”:
If I have to swim a river
You know I will
And if I have to climb a mountain
You know I will . . .
Am I gonna find her, child
You kno-o-ow I will
‘Cause I’ve been searchin’

But will he find her on Vashon Island? Probably not. (Maybe it would be better to think of Waylon Jennings singing “looking for love in all the wrong places.”)

But, a limited dating scene aside, how would a cougar know it would find a home on Vashon? Why would it strike out in that direction? “I don’t think the cougar knows that this is where it wants to go,” Kertson speculates.

“It’s sort of a line-of-sight thing,” he suggests. “You can imagine a cougar on the Kitsap Peninsula. When he looks across at the narrow strait, what he sees is forest.” The cat may think in effect, “Forest is a place where I can make it.”

So, he explores the island. Finds no other cougar. Thinks about moving on. The Vashon cat made its way straight to Point Robinson, on the tip of Maury Island, connected by a small, man-made isthmus to Vashon, nature center director Bianca Perla says. Surprise: There’s more water on the other side, since the tip of Maury is across the Sound from Des Moines.

And the living on Vashon is undeniably easy. It has been overrun by deer, which long since became a problem for anyone trying to grow a garden — hence the 8-foot fences you see all over — and not a few casually tended goats, sheep, llamas and other livestock. Even without a female, Kertson says, the cat may want to linger a while.

About those domestic animals. No one knows what the cougar is really killing. Perla says no one has yet found any cougar scat, which could be analyzed to determine the cat’s recent dinners. Sheep provide easy pickings for just about everything with big teeth, including groups of good dogs that occasionally band together to do bad things. Beyond that, Kertson says, cougars tend to focus on goats, and also, if they’re available, on llamas and alpacas — not so surprising, he says, if you figure that cougars in the Andes regularly prey on their wild relatives.The best way to avoid conflicts, Kertson suggests, is just to lock your critters in at night.

And then, there is the risk to people — scarier when you imagine it than when you look at the numbers. Statistically, the risk is negligible, if not quite zero: A cougar has killed exactly one person in Washington since the 19th century, and that happened in 1924. Nevertheless, Perla says she talks to some Vashon parents who won’t let their kids play outside. She herself thinks it’s better just to be informed — and the nature center has been teaching little kids how to be cougar-safe. Black bears occasionally swim to the island, too, and for whatever reason, many people seem to like the idea of having a bear in the woods — does childhood experience with plush teddy bears carry over? — but not a cougar.

The presence of big cats may not draw enough attention in places like Issaquah, North Bend and even Bellevue, where they roam through parks and greenbelts all the time. They’re all over: Werntz recalls being startled to see a cougar in a Bellingham alley. On Vashon, where most people probably assumed no large feline would swim across a salt-water moat, the attention may be too much.

Cougars aren’t the only young males that disperse to find mates and real estate. Dispersal has brought wolves back into Washington from Idaho and Alberta, and occasional grizzlies south from Canada into the North Cascades.

But the basic drive to disperse doesn’t conquer all. Some barriers prove a lot more daunting than Colvos Passage did to Vashon’s cougar. Wolves haven’t returned to the Olympic Peninsula where they could just walk but haven’t and presumably won’t any time soon. The peninsula is all but isolated, and to reach its southern neck, wolves would have to cross miles of paved roads, strip malls, clearcuts, developments. The people who created the state wolf management plan contemplated a recovery zone on the Olympic Peninsula, but that would have required re-introducing wolves there, a controversial step they decided against.. Now, the plan assumes that once wolves re-establish themselves in the south Cascades, they’ll eventually walk to the peninsula. They may, but don’t wait up for them to call.

Plenty of grizzlies live north of the border, but a grizzly population will expand only slowly, as females move into new territory a few miles at a time. Conservation Northwest has long advocated reintroducing grizzlies in Washington, but the idea didn’t get much momentum, Werntz says, until the management of North Cascades National Park took it up. An Environmental Impact Statement on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades is due early next year.

Reintroduction has been less of an issue for the fisher, a dark, house cat-sized member of the weasel family native to the Cascades and Olympics that was trapped to local extinction for its valuable fur generations ago and listed as a state endangered species in 1998. Conservation Northwest, Olympic Natonal Park, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and, more recently, the North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks have been transplanting fishers from a healthy population in British Columbia to the Washington mountains., .

Perhaps needless to say, no one talks about creating a new cougar population on Vashon. But who knows what the cougars have in mind? Less than a week after that first July sighting, Perla says, someone else reported a cougar swimming across Colvos Passage toward the island.
Was it a second cougar? Are there now two? Nobody really knows.

If there are, we have a pair of risk-takers on the loose. “I’m just fascinated by how it came to be,” Werntz says. “Taking that first step and going into the water.  … That’s remarkable to me.”

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