EUGENE, Ore. -- When Nancy Maniago built her home, she included a two-story window so she could watch deer that live in the nearby woods. Last summer, she had a different sort of visitor: a mountain lion.
"I started screaming to my partner, 'There's a cougar!"' recalled Maniago, whose house is on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon's second-largest city.
The cougar looked straight at Maniago, showing no alarm.
"He just slowly wandered back into the brush, like he wasn't even concerned," Maniago said.
Cougar encounters like Maniago's are on the rise in parts of the West, as urban sprawl encroaches on cougar habitats and laws implemented to protect the animals have borne fruit.
Cougar populations are "increasing exponentially," said Harold Danz, the author of "Cougar!" and a former National Parks Service worker. "They have very, very little fear of man."
The increased sightings have had deadly consequences. Ecology professor Paul Beier has documented 17 deaths and 70 nonfatal attacks from 1890 to the present. Seven of those deaths and 29 other attacks have occurred since 1990.
State laws vary wildly when it comes to cougars. California has an all-out ban on hunting the cats and considers the mountain lion a protected animal. Texas, on the other extreme, allows cougars to be killed year-round with no limits.
Before European settlers arrived in America, cougar country stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They were eradicated in the eastern states by ranchers and hunters, while bounty hunters drastically reduced their numbers in the West.
But cougar populations began to recover when western states repealed bounties and limited cougar hunting in the 1960s. Danz estimates there are around 34,000 cougars now roaming the United States and Canada.
"Most scientists agree that the fact that a lot of western states have adopted hunting restrictions has certainly helped cougar populations," said Elizabeth Murdock, of the National Wildlife Federation.
Now with the tide turning, some lawmakers are reconsidering the laws that originally helped rescue the big cats.
After a two-year debate, Washington state's Legislature last year reversed a total ban on using dogs to hunt cougars, which is considered the only way to track down the elusive animals.
Oregon legislators are now considering a similar bill. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife received 645 cougar complaints last year, compared to just 151 complaints in 1992.
State Sen. Roger Beyer said that since wildlife officials have been unable to cull the burgeoning cougar population, the hunting community should be allowed to intervene.
That argument frustrates Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. He said the risk of cougar attacks have been blown out of proportion.
"This is not high on the human threat list. Domestic dogs are far more dangerous than cougars are," he said. "It's just hysteria driven by the political goals of a small segment of trophy hunters."
Lynn Sadler, executive director of the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation, said in an ideal world, people and cougars would never see each other.
"I think it's best for humans and lions not to interact," she said. "But where are they supposed to go?"
Too many people are moving into cougar lands and don't understand how their actions affect the cats, she said. "People who feed deer in their backyards need to understand that the predator that kills those deer is right behind them," Sadler said.
With only so much land available to both cougars and people, it could just be a matter of time before the cougar population begins to regulate itself, said DeWaine Jackson, of Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But, he added, it may take some time.
For Maniago, that means keeping a wary eye out for her visitor. A few weeks ago, her neighbor found a broken cage he had set to trap whatever animal had been killing his chickens.
"There were bits of yellow fur stuck to the door," she said. "So clearly, the cougar's still around."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.