School bus gets up close with cougar

Scott Swanson

Ginger Allen said she enjoys driving the Cascadia school bus route, partly because of all the wildlife she gets to see driving out in the wilds.

But Tuesday, Nov. 15, she got a look at an animal she didn’t expect – a large cougar.

Allen, who has been driving school buses for Sweet Home School District for about two years, mostly as a substitute, was delivering children to their bus stop about 3:30 p.m. on Whiskey Butte Road, off Highway 20, when she neared the turnaround point near a clear cut.

“As I came up the road to turn around, I saw movement next to the road up there,” she said. “I’m very observant because I’m always concerned that some weirdo is going to grab the kids.”

She saw a cougar “about hip high” walking across a small grass clearing.

“It was just walking away,” she said. “I just noticed it had a really long tail. I’ve never seen a cougar in the wild, just in pictures.”

Allen said she pulled to a stop and told the children to stay seated while she called in on her radio to the Bus Barn to ask that the children’s parents be called.

“I told them I wasn’t going to let them off the bus because I’d seen a cougar,” she said.

A parent showed up forthwith to retrieve the two girls who were due to get off at that stop that day.

“They were pretty grateful,” Allen said.

District Transportation Supervisor LD Ellison said that standard procedure for his drivers is to hold children on the bus if there is any question of safety or, in the case of kindergarteners, if parents are not visibly present and the child has to walk home.

“If drivers are unsure, they keep them on the bus and radio in, unless a parent has signed a right-to- walk form to allow a child to walk down the driveway and into their house when a parent isn’t present.

“We want parents visible when we deliver those children. If in doubt, we err on the side of safety. We can always deliver them later.”

Allen said she called the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to report the sighting, when she got back to the Bus Barn at the end of the route, which turns around at Yukwah.

“They told me it was unusual to see cougars during the day,” Allen said. “There is a lot of logging going on in the area, so that may have disturbed it.”

She said she mostly sees deer and elk in that area, particularly early in the year and she enjoys driving the rural route.

“It’s fun,” she said.

Ellison said drivers have spotted “probably half a dozen” cougars in his 14 years with the district. He said a trainer and a driver on an early-morning ride-along in the Crawfordsville area saw a large cat hop across the road.

“I don’t remember if it was Courtney Creek or West Brush Creek, but it was certainly different than this one,” he said. “This certainly was the closest our children were to being discharged into the food chain.”

Several years ago, a bus driver saw a bear, also on Whiskey Butte, Ellison said.

“The bear was running away from the bus. The bus was following it down the road. (The driver) was trying to figure out what that big brown thing was that was galloping down the road in front of her.”

He said parents who live in rural areas tend to be “very aware of what’s going on around them.”

“Between the drivers and school staff and parents, we haven’t had any unpleasantness. As their habitat shrinks, they get hungrier and we have to be aware.

“They kind of roam around. You just never know. Parents just need to make sure their children are aware.”

Allen said the cougar sighting made her very aware.

“It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, that’s for sure,” she said.