WILDLIFE encounters in the West aren't that unusual. Since moving to southern Oregon a few years back, we've crossed paths with bobcats, bears, foxes, coyotes (a particularly large one just the other day), and a rattlesnake. Deer are so plentiful they don't even count.
I haven't seen a cougar in the wild yet. But it may be just a matter of time, and it may not be in the wild.
There have been nearly 100 cougar sightings here in the Rogue Valley this summer, more than 40 in the past two months. Several have been spotted inside the city limits of nearby Medford (pop., 47,000), including one just two blocks from a grade school in a residential neighborhood.
Officials have asked people to report missing pets. Some parents are driving their kids to school rather than let them walk. The local newspaper published ''tips for people who encounter a cougar.'' (Don't turn and run. Look as big as possible. Grab a stick or rocks.)
It's a story being repeated around the West as housing developments and five-acre ''hobby ranches'' sprout, pushing farther into wildlife habitat. Bears are drawn to garbage, deer to gardens made lush with fertilizers and irrigation. Smaller domestic animals become prey - especially for young male cougars who have a tough time competing for territory with older, bigger cats.
No one in Oregon has reported being attacked by a cougar (also known as a mountain lion) in the last century. But in two separate cases last year, women were killed by cougars in California.
Animal-rights activists point out that dogs, bees, and jellyfish pose greater statistical threats than cougars. But alarm over the recent sightings prompted a legislative effort to repeal a ballot initiative that Oregonians approved last year. It would have banned the use of radio-collared dogs to hunt cougars.
Yet even with safety concerns over the cougars, that repeal effort failed. And in recent years other Western states (California, Arizona, and Colorado) have passed limits on hunting and trapping as well. These reflect shifting values in the West as demographics show more ex-urbanites moving into the neighborhood. Increased criticism of the federal program to control predators on behalf of ranchers is further evidence of this change.
Part of the Department of Agriculture, the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program last year killed nearly 800,000 animals. Most of these were birds considered pests, such as starlings and grackles. But the number also includes 1,925 bobcats, 8,839 foxes, 294 mountain lions, and 85,571 coyotes seen as threats to livestock.
Organizations such as the Predator Project in Bozeman, Mont., and Wildlife Damage Review in Tucson, Ariz., say ADC should stand for ''All the Dead Critters.'' They are mounting an effort to shut down what they see as a cruel subsidy. Some conservative economists wanting to cut the federal budget agree.
Public support for the federal program to reintroduce endangered wolves into the northern Rockies, plus a new effort to bring grizzly bears into areas where they have long since disappeared (including California), also reflect changing public attitudes in the West.
Another social shift is involved here. Only about 7 percent of Americans are hunters anymore. There are more hunters per capita in the rural West, but as urbanites migrate to the wide-open spaces, one is just as likely to see a station wagon with a bumper sticker extolling environmental protection or animal rights as a pickup with a gun rack.
Deer-hunting season opens tomorrow, however. So just to be on the safe side when we take our weekend hike in the mountains, I'm dyeing my beard punk-orange to avoid being confused with game. You might say I have mixed feelings about who the real predators are.