From bear cubs in the drugstore to cougars napping on sofas, some incidents in recent years around Southern Oregon remind us that wildlife is closer than we may think. Sharing an urban-rural interface makes wildlife encounters part of the territory.
Mathew Vargas, wildlife conflict biologist for the Rogue District of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says there are two main categories they track: bears/cougars and everything else. Then they separate these encounters into human safety issues versus damage to property. “A human safety issue would be a bear or cougar that has lost its fear of humans and is near or even breaking into a residence,” he explains. “Damage issues include killing livestock or pets, breaking into a shed or trash cans.”
In 2019, ODFW took 65 cougar complaints from Jackson County and 27 from Josephine County, according to Vargas. For bears, there were 45 complaints from Jackson County and 46 from Josephine County. These statistics have remained fairly consistent over the last few years, Vargas notes.
Kim Aufhauser, a Land Steward instructor and mentor for OSU Extension Service in Central Point, says dangerous wildlife encounters are rare considering the total hours people spend in nature. In decades of records, there is only one human death attributed to a cougar in Oregon, none from rattlesnake bites and 15 human deaths from wild American Black Bears in all the continental United States. “The statistical risk of a dangerous or fatal wildlife encounter is astonishingly low,” he says. “However, the rate of encounters is increasing as animals have their range impacted by people in their territory. Statistically, deer kill more people than any other nonhuman.”
Most of those deer/human deaths are traffic related, Aufhauser says, but deer can cause other issues too. “With a higher deer population, you can get a higher predator population. The predators follow the deer to town and may find your puppy dog or livestock instead.”
Vargas says people feeding deer and other wildlife can cause problems. “Especially in Jacksonville and Ashland, the deer have lost their fear of people and there have been several deer attacks or deer acting aggressively toward people,” he says. “I strongly recommend against feeding and watering wildlife.”
If a wild animal is on your property but is not an immediate threat, Vargas recommends hazing efforts using lights and noise as a first step in getting it to move on. Then remove any temptations that might have attracted the animal, such as dog food left out or unsecured trash cans. If hazing and deterrence don’t do the job, the next step is likely lethal removal. Vargas says there is no relocation of wildlife.
For hikers and cyclists exploring trails in the area, staying in a group and making noise should be enough to prevent a bear or cougar encounter. “If you’re out in the woods, most of the time those animals will be fearful of humans,” Vargas says. The animals will move off without you ever knowing they were there.
If you should come across a bear, don’t approach it and leave the area if you can, Aufhauser says. “Move away slowly, facing the animal and make yourself noisy and big, giving the bear an opportunity to leave. Black bears don’t want any part of us, but if you turn and run or imitate a bear sound, it could trigger an aggressive attack. If you have small children with you, pick them up without bending over.”