Discussion of proposed changes in regulations regarding the use of hounds to hunt cougars in the state of Oregon stirred the pot this past week.
A recent letter penned by the editorial staff at The Oregonian was released on October 20th, 2015, titled "Let Oregonians Hunt Cougars With Dogs." The Portland-based newspaper is the largest in entirety of the Pacific Northwest.
In the letter, the editorial board takes a side on the issue that is contradictory to its metro area readers, mentioning that the political, economical, and cultural divide of Oregon's citizens makes it difficult to bridge the gap between the state's legislators.
This is not the first time the newspaper's editorial board has issued a statement in favor of allowing the use of hounds to hunt cougars. In April 2013, a letter from the board was released titled "In some Oregon counties, it would make sense to allow the use of hounds in hunting cougars."
Oddly enough, the letter points out that the passing of Measure 91, legalizing the sale of marijuana for recreational use, created an inconsistency within the legislative powers. Although the measure is statewide, the state gave power to local governments to ban the sale of marijuana, setting a precedent that counties could create it's own policy independent of state law.
Rewind to 1994, when the state passed Measure 18, which includes a ban on the use of hounds to hunt cougar. That measure, also statewide, did not allow counties to exempt themselves from state law. At the time, the state had only been issuing a small amount of cougar tags, fewer than a thousand.
Hunters were largely successful harvesting cougars by employing the tactics that Measure 18 had banned. Twenty-seven of Oregon's 36 counties voted against Measure 18 in 1994. However, nine urban counties that voted in favor of the measure outweighed the rural area voters, thanks in part to their larger populations.
In fact, without the supporting vote of Multnomah County, Measure 18 would have never passed. The decision sheds light on Oregon's center of political power: its cities.
Oregon's Measure 18 followed suit from California's passing of Proposition 117 in 1990, which prohibited the taking of mountain lions "unless for protection of life, livestock or other property." In 1996, a vote was held on Proposition 197 to repeal Proposition 117's designation of mountain lions as a specially protected species, but was unsuccessful.
That same year, Washington followed suit with a ban on the use of hounds as well. The historical records of the California Dept. of Fish and Game from the years 1900 to 1990 conveyed that when cougar hunting was banned, only four fatal attacks and three non-fatal attacks were reported.
Since 1990, 10 non-fatal attacks and three fatal attacks have occurred, which equates to around an 85 percent jump in overall attacks in a fourth of the time.
During the 2015 session, Senator Bill Hansell, D-Athena, proposed Senate Bill 126, which provides that the county is exempt from the applicability of the state statute banning the use of dogs to hunt or pursue cougars if voters approve those measures, though that particular bill never went anywhere.
Things have changed since 1994 for Oregon's growing cougar population, now twice the size it was back then. The cougar population more than doubled the minimum of 3,000, a number considered desirable by the state's cougar management plan.
Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Salem, was quoted in The Bend Bulletin: "Our population modeling shows that we are over 6,200 (cougars) now."
The department says the number of cougars in Oregon increased by 9 percent from 2006 to 2013 and went up by 96 percent from 1994 to 2013.
In the same article, Craig Foster, district wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Lakeview says the growing population over the years prompted the quota increase this year. "We are just responding to the number of cats," says Foster.
A half century ago, cougars were nearly wiped out in Oregon. Wildlife officials estimated the population to be around 200. Today, Oregon's rapidly growing population of humans coinciding with that of cougars, has created inevitable conflicts with people, pets, and livestock. Although there are no recorded fatal attacks in the state of Oregon, several have occurred in California, Washington and British Columbia.
As a result to the rise in cougar numbers, state wildlife managers increased Oregon's cougar-kill quota to 970 this year. That number had been resting at 777 for several years as the cougar population continued to grow. This quota includes the sum total of cougars harvested by hunters, struck by vehicles, and killed by other means, such as landowners and wildlife managers addressing problem animals.
That number however does not reflect the actual mortality of cougars, which is significantly lower. For 2013 and 2014 combined, the state recorded 916 cougar fatalities, which represents 59 percent of the total quota for those two years.
Out of those 916 fatalities, only 501 were killed by hunters. To put things into perspective on the impact of hunting, the state issued 56,000 cougar tags in 2014, and hunters killed 209. Since the passing of Measure 18, most hunters that take a cougar are usually after something else, like deer or elk.
The massive increase in the number of cougar tags being issued is due mostly in part by their inclusion in Sport Pacs, which bundle fishing licenses and tags for various game animals.
It's sheer luck for hunters to even make contact with cougars without the use of hounds. Ironically, wildlife managers who kill nuisance cougars often find them with canine assistance. State wildlife agents working under Oregon's cougar management plan, will kill up to 95 cougars annually in four different target areas beginning in January.
Biologists with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife discussed the plan with the ODFW commission during a meeting in Florence on Oct. 9. Unlike the quota, which is more of a limit than a goal, the plan is to kill 50 cougars annually in the Interstate management zone, 10 in Steens Mountain, five in the Warner area and 30 in the Umpqua region.
Wildlife officials said cougars will be killed to improve mule deer or big horn sheep populations in the first three zones and to reduce conflict with livestock, pets and humans in the Umpqua zone. These operations are expensive.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services is in charge of the lethal management practices, which for the 10 cougars in the Steens Mountain area alone, carry an estimated cost of $12,500. Several proposals for managing other areas were rejected mostly due to the cost.
Capital Press described the public testimony at the commission's meeting on Friday as primarily critical of the plan. Several speakers described the proposed methods by which cougars would be killed, including neck snares and pursuit by hounds, as cruel and "barbaric," while others mentioned livestock losses and increased cougar presence in residential areas.
"We have livestock kills occurring on a near daily basis in Douglas County," said Kelly Forney, of Roseburg, who contracts with landowners to legally hunt cougars with hounds. Forney also says that the increasing cougar population has resulted in juveniles dispersing away from territory claimed by adult cougars.
Carnivore Advocate Sally Mackler, with Eugene-based nonprofit group Predator Defense, said she questions raising quotas when they are not being reached. "I don't think there is any real, scientific backing that there is a need to hunt cougars or other large predators," says Mackler.
Stan Steele, chairman of the Oregon Outdoor Council Board, issued a statement on an OOC blog written by their President Dominic Aiello, questioning,
"Why are the environmentalists so quiet when the state administratively removes a cougar believed to be a threat to humane safety in their upscale urban settings, but yet raise an emotional media blitz/fuss when cougars are removed due to rural livestock predation or rural school children safety? Urban cougar recolonization is another example of an exceedingly abundant predatory species that is very irresponsibly and unrealistically managed."
State legislators showing concern regarding the urban-rural divide within the state could reconcile by passing the option for counties to be exempt from Measure 18, allowing their voters within each county to decide for themselves how to manage their predator populations.
Otherwise, Oregon's legislators may have to explain why allowing voters to decide whether the state laws apply to their county is acceptable when it comes to cannabis, but not cougars.