Plastered all over today’s Outdoors section of the Herald-Republic is a big story about the overlooked but, as a predator, overachieving coyote.
That wasn’t what the story was going to be about.
What I started out looking into was another predator that, in all of the breathlessly emotional reaction (overreaction?) to wolves’ presence on our landscape, has been largely forgotten.
But it wasn’t coyotes I was expecting to write about. It was cougars.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website has a “Dangerous Wildlife Incidents Reports” section, on which is posted all reports the WDFW receives of “predatory wildlife interactions, including reported human safety confrontations and sightings” and, of course, attacks or threats to humans, pets or livestock.
If you put in a search for all reports in Washington for 2013, you get five wolf “incidents.” For cougars? Nearly 150.
We have roughly 100 resident wolves in the state — and 20 times that many cougars.
That had been my original premise: Cougars are a much more efficient predator than wolves. They are far more numerous here than wolves — and will remain so, since we’ll be hunting wolves well before there’s even 300 of them in Washington.
So why aren’t we more worried about them?
Let’s face it, they can be pretty downright scary if you’re not keeping your wits about you in the great outdoors — which isn’t a good place to be blithely clueless and immersed in your iTunes, by the way. When we’re recreating in the woods, up the mountains and on the trails miles from our houses, we’re in the animals’ house. It’s where they live. We are the visitors, and we should respect the homeowners by watching for them, being aware of them and knowing what they’re capable of.
That’s our responsibility. And it’s for our own well-being that we should take that responsibility seriously.
I’m wandering off-trail again. We were talking about cougars and wolves.
A young, second-year cougar looking for its own territory is much more likely to become aggressively curious about humans than a wolf. And it has far more tools to work with than a wolf; in addition to its teeth, the cougar also has claws that can do serious damage. The wolf? It has only its teeth, which means it always has to “lead with its face.”
That phrase came Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guy who was previously with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and, as a Montana native, once came face-to-face with a gray wolf while deer-hunting as a teenager.
Zimmer is one of those guys I like to talk to when I’m looking into a wildlife-related article, both because he’s really quotable and because he’s one of those guys who has a knack for considering all sides of an issue. He doesn’t talk like an agency flak. He talks like a biologist fascinated with nature and all things in it.
“Wolves don’t kill for fun,” Zimmer told me. “Killing is a dangerous thing for a wolf to be doing. It’s hard to make a living with your face, when everything you want to eat can kick you and do some real damage to you.”
I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild and I doubt I ever will — though I’d love to. I have had the profound privilege of seeing a cougar in the wild, and was so giddy about seeing it that I practically chased it, still carrying the backpacker-plateful of blueberry pancakes I was enjoying when we saw one another.
But all of us have seen coyotes. And they don’t look terrifying or dangerous at all.
Perhaps that’s why I give them little thought when I began the article that became the opus in today’s Herald-Republic. It was only when I began digging into the data that I began realizing the damage coyotes were capable of.
Here’s something I found interesting. I was looking at 2012 wolf depredation reports put together by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Wisconsin has roughly 800 gray wolves, so naturally, there’s a lot of wolf predation on livestock and pets.
But in those reports, each of which the WDNR investigators went into presuming the attacking animal was a wolf (or wolves), I found something interesting: At least 10 calves, two heifers, a bison calf, two dogs, two young horses and two ewes in those “wolf depredation” reports were, in fact, killed not by wolves, but by coyotes.
Coyotes can kill a heifer? Really? Who knew? I sure didn’t.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?