CANNON BEACH, Ore. — Cannon Beach’s most famous landmark was closed all day Sunday after one stubborn and unusual visitor refused to leave.
When Mylasia Miklas, the communications coordinator for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, saw a picture of a cougar prowling around Haystack Rock, her first thought was that it couldn’t be real. She called someone to confirm that, yes, a cougar was indeed on the rock.
As far as she knows, it’s the first time a cougar has been seen there.
“Not to say that it hasn’t happened before,” Miklas said, “but it’s the first time it’s been witnessed.”
By mid-Monday morning, wildlife officials confirmed the cougar had finally left Haystack Rock. Cannon Beach Police Chief Jason Schermerhorn told KMUN that Oregon State Police troopers found tracks coming off the beach and a sweep of Haystack Rock by the U.S. Coast Guard showed no signs of the animal.
A photographer first spotted the cougar at low tide early Sunday morning and alerted awareness program staff who were getting ready for what they thought would be another typical and busy day of educating visitors about tide pools and nesting birds.
Officials with the Cannon Beach police, fire district, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service quickly converged. They closed the beach between Haystack Rock and the dunes to protect beachgoers, but also to give the cougar a clear path back into the woods.
As the sun set Sunday night, a sergeant on the beach reported the cougar was sitting on the north side of the rock, looking toward the beach.
It’s a situation that has never happened in Dawn Harris’ 22 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Haystack Rock. Still, she echoed Miklas: It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened in the past.
Cougars — also called mountain lions — are known to hunt in marine areas. In Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, biologists have observed mountain lions swimming from island to island. But it’s not something anyone expected to see at one of the most popular tourist destinations on the North Coast.
In general, said Harris, “it’s something we just haven’t seen in the last couple decades in Oregon.”
An Oregon cougar management plan published by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2017 noted a rise in cougar sightings on the northern coast. The big cats’ range appeared to be shifting and, in the Coast Range, growing. The changes prompted biologists based in Newport to launch the first-ever coastal effort to track adult cougars’ movements using GPS collars.
Cougar sightings, though infrequent, are not uncommon on the North Coast. On Friday, a trail at Nehalem Bay State Park south of Cannon Beach was closed due to multiple cougar sightings.
The cougar spotted on Haystack Rock could be an animal that was displaced from its usual habitat, or it could be hunting within its range, Harris said. Haystack Rock is protected as a marine garden. It is a national wildlife refuge and, technically, in a national wilderness area.
“It’s anybody’s guess what brought the animal to that island,” Harris said.
Cougars are opportunistic hunters and it is the height of the nesting season at Haystack Rock, famously home to tufted puffins, as well as other seabirds. Miklas wonders if the big cat simply saw an easy meal and got stuck by the rising tide.
But it doesn’t appear that any puffins were harmed. Federal fish and wildlife officials say the cougar generally stayed low on the rock, far from where the puffins and most of the other birds build their nests.
The cougar is just one of several unusual animals sightings at Haystack Rock this year.
In May, Miklas spotted a young sunflower sea star — an unexpected and hopeful sign after an outbreak of sea star wasting disease decimated the species on the West Coast in recent years.
Then, last month, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program helped rescue a stranded giant Pacific octopus, one of the largest octopus species in the world.
“It’s been a busy summer,” Miklas said.
Megan Nagel, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that cougars are usually wary of humans and will retreat if given the opportunity.
For more information about how to respond if you encounter a cougar, check out these guidelines from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.