Was that a COUGAR? How to identify Snoqualmie Valley wildlife

[Contributing writer Melissa Grant is a North Bend resident, pet trainer for Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs and a wildlife enthusiast]

Is it a bobcat? Is it a lynx? Is it a COUGAR?

Recently many Facebook posts about possible Cougar sightings around the area made me realize some of us don’t know how to identify the animals we have in the Snoqualmie Valley.  Furthermore, do you know what to do if you are confronted with a “close-encounter-of-the-critter-kind?”

I’ve had some peaceful, magical moments watching the elk herd; observing eagles soar and dive in the river; and even saw three bobcats up at Rattlesnake Lake! Unfortunately, I also got dragged down a gravel trail by two large dogs when a curious coyote decided to cross our path.  Six weeks in a boot with a broken lower leg has made me more cautious and observant while utilizing our many trails.

So, what roams this area we call home and what should you do if you see one of our larger furry neighbors? The list is so long, so let’s focus on the animals we sometimes see and frequently misidentify: elk & deer; coyotes & wolves; and cougar & bobcat/lynx. I’ll throw in Grizzly vs. Black bear for fun even though we have no Grizzlies in the area.

Elk vs. Deer: Technically, both animals are deer but we commonly refer to the black-tailed deer as simply deer. Both animals are ruminating ungulates (meaning they have four chambered stomachs and hoofed feet) and both males of the species grow antlers. The main difference between the two is size. Elk are large mammals, with males topping out at an average of 700 pounds and females at 500 pounds. They stand approximately 8 feet tall and are about 5 feet long. Their coats are furry, brown and the males grow a shaggy ruff around their necks.  Elk communicate by bugling and chirping. These animals are grazers, meaning they eat grass found on the edge of woodlands

Deer are much smaller, with males weighing in at about 300 pounds and females at about 200 pounds. Deer stand 3 ½ feet tall and can be as long as 7 feet. They have a coat that changes with the season: reddish in the summer and grayish in the winter. Deer have a distinctive broad black tail that they raise when alarmed. Deer communicate with alarm calls that sound like they are blowing air forcefully through their nostrils. These creatures are browsers and feed primarily on leaves. Deer and elk are crepuscular and are most active from dusk to dawn.

Deer. Photo: Melissa Grant

Wolf vs. Coyote: As far as we know, there are no known wolf packs in the Snoqualmie Valley. There have, however, been sightings of wolves who seem to be passing through and one was killed on the freeway in 2015. While it is possible that wolves will eventually spread to the area, as of now the closest wolf pack is the Teanaway pack in Kittitas County. 

To the untrained eye, the two animals look very similar. Again, the main difference in these two animals is size. Wolves stand about 33” tall at the shoulder, 6 feet long and can weigh up to 100 pounds. Their ears are rounded and their snouts are blocky. Both animals are a mixture of tan, brown and gray, but wolves can also be black. They hunt in packs and howl to communicate. Wolves prey on large animals such as goat, sheep and deer.

Gray Wolf :Photo credit WDFW website

Coyotes are smaller weighing only about 45 pounds, 3 ½ feet in length and standing 22” at the shoulder. They have the same coloring as wolves, but none are black. Their ears are pointed, as are their snouts. Coyote ears are larger in proportion to their heads than wolf ears. They hunt alone or in pairs and use yips and howls to communicate. Both animals are shy and avoid human interaction, although coyotes can become adapted to inhabited locations. Small mammals such as rats and rabbits make up a coyote’s main diet. Coyotes and wolves are also crepuscular but it isn’t unheard of to see one in the daylight especially when they have young to feed.

Cougar vs. Lynx vs. Bobcat: The main difference between these three cats is size. The cougar is the largest of the three by far. A full-grown cougar can be 8 feet long from nose to tip of tail. They weigh in at about 180 pounds and stand 30 inches tall at the shoulder. Cougar coats are tawny or reddish with no markings aside from a 2 ½ to 3 ½ foot thick black tipped tail. Their vocalizations include growls, hisses, and bird-like whistles. They purr like domestic cats, and when in season, the females give off loud, hair-raising screams. Their prey consists of deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, and wild sheep with deer being their preferred food. Cougars are solitary and avoid other cats except when mating.

Lynx and bobcats are very similar in appearance, however, lynx are exceedingly rare in Washington. It’s estimated that there are anywhere from only 20 to 100 left in the wild. The lynx is the larger of the two weighing up to 50 pounds, measuring 40 inches long and 22 inches high. They have a very short tail, black tipped ears and very large paws for walking on snow. Their coats are medium brown to golden brown and are marked with dark spots and a mane. They make sounds very similar to housecats: they mew, yowl, hiss and spit. Lynx are predators who prefer snowshoe hares above all other food.

Bobcat Kitten:Photo Credit Susan Burk

The bobcat is approximately 30 inches long and 20 to 30 pounds. They have basically the same color coats, but lack the long black ear tufts, huge paws and mane of the Lynx. Bobcats look very much like a large housecat, but of the two, the bobcat is more aggressive. Bobcats rarely vocalize, except during mating season when they make a sound similar to a woman’s scream (as do cougars). Their main prey is small mammals, but they are opportunistic and will take domestic animals such as chickens and housecats. All three cats are also most active from dusk to dawn.

Grizzly vs. Black Bear: The main difference between these two animals is size. A Grizzly stands up to 3.5 feet at the shoulders and the males can weigh 700 pounds. They have a pronounced shoulder hump (that’s all muscle folks!) and a rear end that is lower than those shoulders. Grizzlies have long curved claws for digging, small ears and a dished profile.

Black bears are about 3 feet tall and males weigh an average of 300 pounds. Note: the WDFW have documented garbage eating male bears on the Ridge weighing 500 pounds! Their rumps are higher than their shoulders and they have short claws for climbing. Black bears have a straight or “Roman” nose, larger ears and a less pronounced shoulder hump.

So now that we know who is here, what do we do if we encounter one of these creatures while out and about?

Elk and deer are nervous creatures and are likely to flee in most situations. However, their sheer size makes them a potential danger to humans. If an elk or deer feel their young are threatened, they can charge or kick. Bulls and bucks can be very dangerous during rut, if they drop their antlers down and pin someone to the ground it could be fatal. If you come across an aggressive elk or deer, immediately back off and give them space. If they charge you it’s probably a bluff, but get behind something substantial or simply run. They are unlikely to chase you very far. Do not allow unleashed pets to approach a deer or elk.

Coyotes are also generally timid creatures and likely to run if challenged. Again, any animal will protect itself or its young. If a coyote gets too close be sure to pick up young children and act aggressively towards the animal. Stand up and make yourself appear as large as possible by waving your arms. Throw things at it and shout. You want the animal to see you as a threat and not prey. After my close encounter with the coyote that didn’t back off, I bought a stun gun. Not to use on the animal (although I would if I had to), but for the sound. I used it around another coyote and it took off like its tail was on fire. If you regularly walk in coyote territory, you might consider carrying some kind of noisemaker. Use good solid electrified fencing for outdoor livestock and keep pets indoors at night.

Wild wolves generally avoid human interaction. Attacks are exceedingly rare. In fact, there have only been two wild wolf attack fatalities in North America since 1969. It is more likely your pet will be attacked than you. However, in the rare instance you are the subject of a wolf attack do NOT run. Running can trigger a predatory instinct and that’s a foot race you can’t win. Stand, face your attacker and act aggressively. Shout, clap your hands, and throw things. Climb a tree if you can. If the wolf attacks, fight with any means necessary. It’s a good idea to carry bear spray when hiking in an area they frequent. Be sure to protect outdoor pets and livestock from predation with secure nighttime buildings and electrified fencing.

The likelihood of encountering a cougar, lynx or bobcat is rare. However, the last couple of years have seen an increase in human/cougar conflict. Just like with coyotes and wolves, you don’t want to look like easy prey. First, pick up small children, face the animal, while talking softly and try to back away while leaving the animal an escape route. If it advances, stand tall, wave your arms and shout. Throw things at it. Be as assertive as you can to convince it you are too dangerous to mess with. If you are attacked, try to stay standing and fight back. Make it believe it has made a mistake in attacking you. Again, if you regularly hike or bike in the woods, consider carrying bear spray. Keep pets indoors at night.

The advice for a bear encounter with either is essentially the same as for a cougar. Pick up small children, speak softly and try to back away. However, if a black bear is aggressive be aggressive back. Stand tall, try to look larger, shout, wave your arms and throw things. If it attacks fight back.  If a Grizzly bear is aggressive DO NOT act aggressively in return. If it attacks try to lay flat and wait for the attack to be over. Carry bear spray when in bear country.

Animals are common in our area, but attacks are uncommon. The probability of any wildlife conflict, aside from the occasional knocked over trash can, is slim. Use common sense and your hiking and biking will be pleasant and conflict free. Get out there and enjoy the area!

Black bear on the 11th hole of the Club at Snoqualmie Ridge in May 2016

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