Now, I numbly ran through that old camp advice: Don’t run; make noise. I yelled and hoisted Taiga over my shoulder. The cougar circled us, settled again. When I started to walk away, it padded after me. I raised my voice to a scream. It paused, uncertain, then vanished into the trees.
I soon heard from others in our neighborhood who encountered the cat—on the trail, peering through a glass door. A husband and wife woke one night to noises like wind in a tunnel. In the moonlight beyond their window, they saw an adult cougar sing-songing to a young one, making a sound, the man said, “like nothing I’ve heard before or since.”
The couple phoned Lauren Satterfield, a cougar researcher who works in the valley. She set up motion-sensing cameras that revealed two juveniles and two full-grown cougars wandering among our forest-scattered homes. Satterfield and her crew captured one of them—not the half-grown cat I met, but an adult female. They fitted her with a GPS collar, then released her to transmit secrets about her life.
The familiar woods felt upended. I walked them now with a sense of vertigo, disoriented by these fleeting brushes with a creature of foreign compass, who navigated the serrated mountains and the tumbling tributaries of the Methow River, the small towns of Winthrop and Mazama and their Nordic skiing trails, according to experience and rules wholly its own. To recover my bearings, I called Satterfield and asked if I could follow her following cats.
Satterfield is direct and plainspoken, and was blunt about my odds of seeing anything more. Collaborating with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for her doctorate at the University of Washington, she’s studying how cougars are affected by wolves’ return to the state. I could join a collaring excursion, she said, but the cats are so elusive that, even with houndsmen and their tracking dogs, a team might collectively snowmobile 400 miles a day over a weekend and still catch nothing.
That invisibility has helped cougars persist, argues Jim Williams, the regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in his book, Path of the Puma. European colonists obliterated the cats in most of the East and Midwest. But unlike wolves and grizzlies, cougars hid well in the rugged West, and their preference for hunting over scavenging protected them from poison and traps. After bounty-killing programs ended in the 1960s and ’70s, the survivors reaped the benefits of rebounding deer and elk populations, as well as growing public sympathy for predators. Cougar-hunting rules grew more protective. In the ’90s, voters ended cougar hunting altogether in California and effectively banned the use of hounds for hunting them in Washington and Oregon. More than 90 percent of Washington residents surveyed in 2008 saw cougars as an essential part of ecosystems, with an inherent right to exist. Today, an estimated 30,000 wander the West, overlapping with people nearly everywhere, mostly unseen and thus unremarked on.