Was it a Cougar in North Bend? How to identify local wildlife

[Thanks to contributing writer, pet trainer at Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs and North Bend resident, Melissa Grant for this article. Melissa has encountered a lot of local wildlife while walking area pets and living in her rural area home.]

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

Recently many Facebook posts about animal sightings in neighborhoods near exit 32 in North Bend made me realize many of us don’t know how to identify the many animals we have in the Snoqualmie Valley –  or what to do if we are confronted with a “close-encounter-of-the-critter-kind.”

Personally, I’ve had some peaceful, magical moments watching the elk herd; observing eagles soar and dive in the river; and I 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, and by no means complete, as I couldn’t begin to name everything. So, let’s focus on the animals we sometimes see and frequently misidentify, such as elk &deer, coyotes & wolves and cougar, lynx & bobcat.

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 a 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 shaggy, 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, meaning they most active from dusk to dawn.

Wolf vs. coyote- First off let me say that aside from the lone wolf that was killed on I-90 in 2015, there are no known wolf packs in Western Washington. While it is possible that the recently reintroduced wolves will eventually spread to this side of the Cascades, 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 larger animals such as goat, sheep and deer.

Trail cam photo of suspected black wolf taken in the Indian Hill area of Snoqualmie.

Coyotes are smaller weighing about 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, 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, rabbits make up a coyote’s main diet. Coyotes and wolves are also crepuscular.

Coyote on banks of Snoqualmie River near Riverbend neighborhood of North Bend. Photo: Rachel Mark

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 gown 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.

[Note: There have been some cougar sightings in the exit 32 area of North Bend over the past five years. In 2012 it was suspected that family dog was taken off a porch by a cougar and killed.The Department of Fish and Wildlife set a trap for that cougar, but it unsuccessful. Incidents like this are extremely rare, though.]

Lynx and bobcats are very similar in appearance, however, lynx are exceedingly rare in Washington. It’s estimated that less than 50 still exist 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 rabbits above all other food.

The bobcat is approximately 30 inches long and 20 to 30 pounds. They have basically the same color coats, but lack the black ear tufts and mane of the Lynx. Their ear tufts are also shorter and their paws smaller. 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.

Bobcat in the woods lining Snoqualmie Ridge, Deer Park neighborhood, 4/8/14

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 – and 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.. Consider good solid fencing for outdoor livestock and keep pets indoors at night.

Wild wolves generally avoid human interaction. Wolf 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. Be sure to protect outdoor pets and livestock from predation.

The likelihood of encountering a cougar, lynx or bobcat is rare. There have been 20 fatal cougar attacks in North America in the past 120 years. 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. If you regularly hike or bike in the woods, consider carrying pepper spray or a firearm (if you know how to use it). Keep pets indoors at night. (Note the advice for a bear encounter is the same)

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!

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  • Was at Three Rivers Park last summer, and told the WA grounds keeper who was trimming back blackberry bushes, that I saw a Lynx cross my path walking from the river the previous summer and he insisted Lynx can NOT be found on the west slopes of the cascades. However, I beg to differ as an Eagle Scout, I knew what I saw and identified correctly. This article supports what I saw. Thank you.

  • Good article. Here is my addition about deer – We live near the trail head of Mt Si and have seen many deer and we see elk almost daily. The only deer we have seen here and in the valley have been Columbian black tailed deer which are generally smaller than the Whitetail mentioned in the article and have much smaller tails. East of the Cascades you will find the larger White-tailed deer and the even larger Rocky Mountain Mule Deer. Interestingly there are piebald variation of the black-tailed deer in the Snoqualmie valley.

    1. Its true I had so many tabs open at the same time researching I got my eastern and western Washington deer mixed up 🙂 I asked Danna to fix it

  • Cougar sighting near exit 34: ran outside with my wife to see what kind of animal our two livestock guardian dogs were fighting with tonight around 10:00pm and found myself uncomfortably close to a cougar that must have jumped over into a fenced in portion of our yard. Luckily our dogs were able to protect our two goats and ducks/chickens. Only one of our dogs bled from a scratch on his ear. The cougar did not move as we backed away; not sure if it is still within our fence as it is too dark and too many trees to want to investigate further tonight.

  • Buying a stun gun for the sound is very clever.

    I changed my ringtones to the sound of a Taser, and it scared off a cougar just yesterday!

  • Living Snoqualmie