An Oregon woman who disappeared after setting out on a hike in Mount Hood National Forest late last month is believed to have died from a mountain lion attack, according to an announcement made yesterday by the local sheriff’s department. A medical examiner has determined that the body of Diana Bober, 55, shows signs of injuries consistent with a mountain lion mauling.
Samples of DNA evidence have been sent to a US Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory in order to confirm the species responsible for her death.
"Oregon has never had – until this incident – a confirmed attack of a person by a cougar either fatal or nonfatal and so this is very rare,” Oregon Fish and Wildlife manager Brain Wolfer stated.
The event, though undeniably tragic, is bound to prompt unjustified fear and perhaps out of proportion persecution of these large cats.
Since 1890, only 25 fatal and 95 non-fatal mountain lion attacks have been documented in the entirety of North America. In comparison, the CDC estimates that 800,000 people require medical attention for dog attacks every year.
US populations of mountain lions (Puma concolor) – also known as cougars and pumas – dropped significantly in the 19th and 20th centuries due to unregulated hunting. In many states, the big cats were wiped out entirely, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that protections and hunting limits finally began to be enacted.
In last few decades, several regional populations have been reestablished and those that survived are slowly rebounding. Yet, as cougar researcher and University of Colorado PhD student Joe Acampora explains, the species is still far from its previous numbers.
"[M]ost populations are now feeling the pressure of human development in the form of habitat fragmentation, which makes it more difficult for cats to find adequate territories in which they can easily move between to locate mates and prey,” Acampora told IFLScience. “While they are globally listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, many regional populations are at risk for these reasons.”
Currently, landowners and law enforcement officials can kill cougars that are deemed to pose a threat to the safety of people or livestock. Because humans continue to urbanize the wilderness areas cougars inhabit – driving out natural prey animals while introducing very edible pets and farm animals – close encounters that warrant such actions are becoming more frequent.
“What I like to get across to people is to try and balance the statistical realities (that this is very rare) with the fact that there is a real danger and that these things do happen,” Acampora continued.
“You’ll often see [conservation] groups jump on ideas that this may have been a sick, juvenile, or old/injured individual. This is often the case, but it’s also important to remember that mountain lions are generalists and opportunists, and as such may take unusual prey such as humans.”
But despite the increasing overlap between people and cougars, Acampora emphasizes that, on the whole, cougars are extremely cautious of approaching us.
“We like to tell people that if you’ve been hiking in the western US, a mountain lion has likely seen you and passed up the chance, or chosen to avoid you altogether. In most sightings – which themselves are extremely rare – lions are seen running away from humans.”
To minimize your risk of an attack, he recommends always hiking in groups and avoiding jaunts in known cougar territories during dawn and dusk.
According to CNN, US Fish and Wildlife officials are currently looking for the cougar responsible for the mauling. As is protocol, it will be killed when found.