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SALT LAKE CITY — A mountain lion strolled into a California school on Wednesday morning and cozied up next to the desk in Jose Perez's English language classroom.
Students and staff at Pescadero High School were unharmed, and according to the Half Moon Bay Review, signs reading "I like cats" and "save the cougar" started appearing in the hallway. By the end of the day, wildlife officials transported the 40-pound cub to the Oakland Zoo for a medical inspection.
Seeing a mountain lion — also called cougars, pumas, catamounts — is rare. What's more rare is one walking into a high school. But throughout the last decade, encounters with the big cats are happening with increased frequency. Just four days before the Pescadero incident, a 9-year-old girl narrowly survived an attack from a young male cougar, which jumped on her as she was playing with friends in Fruitland, Washington.
In the past century, mountain lions have killed less than two dozen people in the U.S., out of over 100 attacks. You're less likely to die by a mountain lion than a snake bite, bee sting or lightning strike — an estimated 20 people are killed every year by cows.
But as residential development creeps further into the foothills, more people flock to public land to hike and recreate. Plus, the West's historic drought is pushing deer populations into the suburbs in search of water. That's why wildlife officials say cougar encounters are increasing.
"Just seeing a (mountain) lion is so rare," said Darren DeBloois, mountain lion coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "If you're looking for an uptick, it's hard to quantify that. But it certainly seems like we're seeing more and more reports of people running into them in the field."
Mountain lion encounters, attacks in Utah
Utah is cougar country. In March, a Bountiful man filmed a mountain lion in his backyard; in April, a Holladay resident called the Division of Wildlife Resources after a cougar killed a deer in their neighborhood; a few days later, one was reported roaming the streets of Toquerville in Washington County.
And of course there's the now-famous six-minute video of Kyle Burgess backing down a trail in Provo's Slate Canyon in 2020 as a fully grown mountain lion repeatedly charges him.
"My emotions were a jumbled mess," he told the Deseret News after the encounter went viral, amassing over 8 million views on YouTube. "So it was kind of like ... 'K, well, this is going one of two ways. What's the outcome going to be?'"
The incident was one of 140 cougar encounters reported to wildlife officials in Utah that year. The figure includes all calls to the Division of Wildlife — sometimes officials investigate and it's not a cougar at all. Others were sightings, and the cougar was long gone by the time biologists showed up. If the cougar kills or attacks pets, or acts aggressively towards people, it may be euthanized.
Consider these figures from the DWR:
- From July 2017 to July 2018 there were 70 incidents and nine cougars euthanized.
- 2018 to 2019: 96 incidents and three cougars euthanized.
- 2019 to 2020: 140 incidents and 12 cougars euthanized.
- 2020 to 2021: 118 incidents and seven cougars euthanized.
- 2021 to present: 75 incidents and eight cougars euthanized.
Since 2005, there have been four reported cougar attacks in Utah, according to division data:
- In 2005, a cougar attacked an archery hunter. The hunter managed to shoot the cougar with an arrow in the process of being attacked.
- In 2008, hunters calling coyotes accidentally called in a cougar, which attacked them. The hunters managed to kill the cougar.
- In 2017, a cougar attacked a boy, jumping out of a tree and leaving scratches before it ran off.
- In 2018, a bow hunter was injured after he said a cougar knocked him to the ground, leaving scratch marks on his chest and a puncture wound in his leg. The DWR was unable to confirm it was in fact a cougar that attacked the hunter.
DeBloois, with the DWR, said there isn't a clear trend in the last five years — the most mountain lion encounters reported to the division were between 2019 and 2020. But over the past 20 years, with the proliferation of camera phones and an increasing number of hikers, mountain bikers and climbers, more people are coming in contact with the elusive predator than ever before.
Drought pushes deer to urban areas. Cougars follow
The historically bad drought isn't directly impacting cougar populations yet, officials say. But it is impacting deer populations, which are increasingly drawn to neighborhoods where residents water their lawns or maintain a garden. And wherever deer go, cougars often follow.
"If deer are using urban areas because they're watered, which offers a food supply that's high in nutrients as opposed to what they can get from the landscape, it certainly could be the case," DeBloois said. "It really hinges on what the deer are doing."
Growth and recreation
Some of the fastest-growing regions of Utah, one of the most rapidly growing states in the country, are in previously undeveloped foothills — ideal cougar habitat.
Think Eagle Mountain, St. George, Ogden, Draper or Park City. Some of the cougar relocation efforts DeBloois has been called to were at residential construction sites on the benches along the Wasatch Front.
"In Eagle Mountain, they've recently hired a biologist to focus on how they can manage that growth and expansion in such a way that minimizes the impact on wildlife," said Terry Messmer, a professor at Utah State University's Department of Wildland Resources who researches human-wildlife conflicts. "But anytime you start moving into that wildland interface, you're going to create these situations."
And with people moving further into the foothills and mountains, more people take to the surrounding trails.
"We don't want people to be afraid of going and recreating in the outdoors; we just want them to be aware that they are in wildland country, and whether it be cougars, bears, moose, elk, or deer that they encounter, there's always a risk of that turning out negative," Messmer said.
Everyone has a camera
With the proliferation of smartphones and homes in upscale, mountain neighborhoods with security cameras, a natural outcome is more cougar videos.
"In that urban-wildland interface where people are getting (cougars) on their cameras in their backyards, it may just be they're seeing stuff that was always there, but they didn't notice before," said DeBloois.
Consider this unnerving video of a jogger in California running by a mountain lion, unknowingly, as it watches him from behind a bush.
More cougars means more cougar sightings
One of the simplest explanations for the increase of cougar sightings is their population, which in the Mountain West has been slowly expanding for decades.
Up until the 1950s, bounties were routinely paid for hunters who killed mountain lions, decimating populations around the country. Then in the 1960s, hunting cougars became regulated. Their numbers began to recover, with increased efforts to rehabilitate deer and elk migrations giving them a boost.
"As we were growing mule deer populations, we definitely saw an increase in mountain lion populations," DeBloois said.
But with the drought, deer and elk populations are suffering, and DeBloois said mountain lions could be next.
"We've seen some declines in mule deer numbers that we think (are) drought-related," he said. "You do expect to eventually see a decrease in mountain lion numbers that's tied to that, but there can be quite a lag. It could be several years."