The night sheep rancher Dale Killingsworth died, a stealthy killer was stalking his sheep. By morning, the cougar that had been plaguing the Killingsworth ranch for nearly three months was dead.
In the mind of Killingsworth's great-nephew, the two events are inextricably linked, according to Mickey Killingsworth, Dale's wife.
After Dale died in a two-vehicle automobile accident Jan. 5, on U.S. Highway 26 south of Madras, his great-nephew Bub Harris, 12, of Prineville, told Mickey that he knew Dale was in heaven. Mickey asked the sixth-grader how he knew.
"He said, `Uncle Dale's in heaven. I know he is because of the cougar,'" Mickey said.
When she asked him to explain, Bub told her that Dale knew Mickey would be really mad that he died and there was so much to do at the ranch.
"The angels said, `You can do one last thing,'" Bub told Mickey.
In Bub's story, Dale said that there were 10 tons of hay that needed to be moved, but the angels said that would be too obvious a miracle. His second request -- the death of the cougar -- was granted.
For four months, from September to early December of 2004, a cougar harassed and killed sheep on the Killingsworth ranch on Dover Lane.
Every four nights, like clockwork, the cougar would hide in a rock outcropping behind the Killingsworth's home, and wait until everyone was asleep -- always between midnight and 3 a.m. -- and then, move in for the kill.
When the killing began, back in September, Mickey wasn't sure what was doing the damage. A pack of coyotes or feral dogs? A bobcat? She even considered a bear, before calling on the help of John Belozer, who catches predators and other problem animals for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.
Belozer determined that only one animal was doing the damage -- a cougar.
From September until the cougar's last two kills on Jan. 4 -- after a one-month respite -- Mickey lost 40 sheep; some died almost immediately, during the cougar's attacks, and others from the injuries they suffered.
"I could have dealt with him killing every four days if he hadn't done the other damage," Mickey said. "He was coming in and running (the sheep) into the barn, and then they stacked up, and he got what he wanted."
The other damage that occurred when the cougar herded the frightened sheep included suffocation, broken bones, sprained legs, and aborted pregnancies.
"It's one thing when they kill to survive. It's another when they start maiming them," Mickey said.
Turtle, a bummer lamb, was one of the first sheep to be injured, when the cougar was less experienced. The cougar bit off his right ear and chewed on his leg, but he was lucky and has recovered enough to walk with a limp.
As the cougar's method of operation became apparent, the Killingsworths began putting their 125 to 150 sheep in their barn each night, with their two livestock guard dogs, George, a Maremma and Shar Planinetz mix, and Silver Bullett, a silver tip/Maremma, standing watch at each entrance.
In spite of their vigilance, the cougar was able to get into the barn, kill a sheep, and drag it out before the dogs scared it off.
"Most of the time, he never got to eat them; the guard dogs interrupted him," she said. "I only know of five that he carried away."
The killing spree frightened Mickey's neighbors, some of whom live in the Canyon View and Madras Ranchos areas just north of her ranch.
"Everybody out here who knew there was a cougar was just terrified," she said.
The terror ended when Belozer caught the cougar in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, in a snare.
Belozer referred inquiries about the capture to his supervisor, Mike Slater of LaGrande, district supervisor for USDA Wildlife Services.
Slater said that the male cougar, or mountain lion, was probably in his second year, and not fully grown. He weighed about 110 pounds, and was 80 inches from nose to tip of tail. A fully-grown male cougar would average 140 to 150 pounds, Slater noted.
"He was captured using hounds," he said. "We had set some snares, but he started coming in from a different direction."
A snare has a wire cable, with a one-way lock, which usually goes around the body or neck of an animal. It's not dangerous to people, Slater pointed out, but it can be to nontarget animals, such as deer, elk, or dogs.
"If we're going to use devices like that, we use a number of precautions," he said. "There are other traps we can use, but dogs are preferable. We don't want to be impacting nontarget animals."
The USDA Wildlife Services is a small government program formed to help people resolve wildlife complaints. Slater explained, "We do wildlife damage management."
Other government agencies, such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), also deal with animals, but animals that cause damage to people, livestock, or property, are referred to Wildlife Services.
"By almost all accounts, 30 or 40 sheep is a pretty big damage total," Slater commented, but the cougar that Belozer caught on Jan. 6 was not the only one he is pursuing.
"John is working on a number of different complaints in his area of responsibility," Slater said. "He covers Wasco, Jefferson and Crook counties."
In recent years, Slater has seen tremendous growth in the cougar population in Oregon. "Basically, the cougar population in Oregon is steadily increasing -- from roughly 2,500 just a few years ago, to about 4,000 now."
Brian Ferry, district wildlife biologist for the ODFW, said that there have been cougar sightings all around the Madras area. "It looks like cougars have expanded fairly significantly in recent years."
In the fall, a cougar was hit and killed on U.S. Highway 26 in Warm Springs, and another was killed by a Warm Springs rancher. Several years back, another cougar was cornered in a tree in Metolius.
Oregon hunters who have cougar tags are allowed to track and kill cougars -- without the use of dogs -- during cougar season. Statewide, the quota for cougar harvests was 562 in 2004, with a quota of 18 for the Columbia Basin cougar hunt zone, which includes Jefferson County.
The 2005 general cougar season began Jan. 1 for hunters with 2005 tags. The statewide quota for 2005 is 579.
"Typically, on average, we've been having 10 to 15 per year harvested," said Ferry. "Most are from sport harvest."
One of those who is concerned about the increase in the cougar population is Brad Klann, who farms on Agency Plains. "There's a lot more of them now than there used to be," he said. "I killed one about a mile behind our house during deer season, on a neighbor's property."
Last week, he said, another one was shot just a few miles from his house, toward Gateway, and another neighbor just lost a goat -- probably to a cougar.
"There's cougars all over," said Klann, who is worried about families with young children in areas on the outskirts of town. "They can look for anything that moves," he cautioned.
When a cougar is killed, it must first be taken to an ODFW office for inspection. In the case of the local cougar, Belozer took it to the ODFW office in Prineville, where it was weighed and examined. Since it was a male, the stomach was removed for further study.
"We're looking into diseased cougars," said Ferry, noting that some cougars have had parasites in their stomachs. ODFW won't have results from testing on the local cougar for several months, he said.
Once the examination is complete, and the animal is tagged, the landowner has the option of asking for the return of the animal. Mickey chose to have the animal returned to her ranch to allow her nephews and great-nephews to have a close look at the animal that had done so much damage.
"I'll let my nephews decide what to do with him when they come in for the funeral," she said. The memorial service for Dale Killingsworth will be held at 4 p.m., Friday, Jan. 21, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
George, the one-eyed guard dog who was so bedeviled by the cougar, knows exactly what he wants done with the cougar. Whenever he gets the chance, he tries to cover the cougar with straw, and then, as a final insult to ensure that the cougar knows whose territory he's in, George urinates on him.