Cougar population is double state’s management goals, crowd told

Sean C. Morgan

Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife told an audience of around 170 people last week that the tools currently available are making cougar management difficult, resulting in a statewide population that is more than twice the agency’s target number.

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger hosted a town hall Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Jim Riggs Community Center to hear opinions and questions from the public and provide answers from officials on the topic. Controlling cougar populations as they encroach on urban areas, like Sweet Home, has remained one of Sprenger’s ongoing goals in the legislature. Her opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Renee Windsor-White, attended.

ODF&W Wildlife Division Administrator Doug Cottam said that Sweet Home has had five sightings reported in the last month.

Multiple residents of the Sweet Home area, nearby communities and Corvallis shared stories about recent cougar sightings and attacks on livestock, while hound hunters from Southern Oregon and Linn County described the issues created by ending hunting with hounds in 1994.

Others, including residents of the Sweet Home area, Portland and Corvallis, said that hunting with hounds is inhumane and that they would oppose efforts to allow such. Among them, one downplayed the level of risk associated with cougars encroaching in urban areas, noting that two or three cougars were probably within a mile of where he was standing.

Currently, the state removes cougars in areas where they are causing damage among deer and elk populations, said ODF&W Deputy Director Shannon Hurn.

ODF&W administratively removes the animals in target areas for biological and research purposes to determine whether the state can improve prey populations, decrease livestock damage and improve human safety, Cottam said. Right now, three different target areas are designated to see if ODF&W can control livestock damage.

“The reason this all started was ballot Measure 18 (of 1994),” said Curt Wilcox, a Lacomb hound hunter. “We should repeal this whole thing.”

He asked Cottam what he would do about it.

Since hunting with dogs was banned, the state began issuing up to two cougar tags per year to hunters, Cottam said. “That has not slowed the population down.”

ODF&W is offering hunts, he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Cottam acknowledged he really wasn’t answering the question.

“I didn’t think you would,” Wilcox replied, noting that Cottam is in an impossible political position. “You can’t. You don’t have any tools in your box. You only have us.”

The state has limited ability to use hounds since 1994, Hurn said. It has 30 agents who can hunt with hounds under heavy restriction related to livestock damage and human safety.

Dave Wagner has lived in Sweet Home since 1962, he said. Growing up, “there were a lot of dog hunters in the area.”

A lot of it was sport hunting where they would pursue and tree a cat, he said. Most of the time, they would tree the cat and let it go. Being chased for miles by dogs and humans, the mountain lions developed a fear of them.

“They used to be afraid of a poodle,” Wagner said. “If they heard any dogs barking, they ran away. If they saw a human, they ran away.”

That’s the solution, he said, although he doesn’t know if the younger generations would be interested.

“I don’t know if we can get a population of dog hunters going again,” Wagner said.

“The cougars are in our neighborhood,” said Jerry Roy of Corvallis. He lives in an area with large lots, more than an acre. “They’re in our backyards.”

Brian Posewitz, who described himself as an active outdoorsman from Portland, said Oregon voters considered chasing a cougar with dogs and then shooting it out of a tree to be inhumane, and they banned it. An attempt to repeal it was unsuccessful.

“I considered it inhumane then,” said Posewitz, who is listed on the website for Waterwatch, a conservation organization that seeks to protect “natural flows in Oregon rivers,” as its staff attorney. “I consider it inhumane now.”

Noting a recent fatality attributed to a cougar in the Mount Hood area, he questioned whether it was because of the ban on hunting with dogs, something he considers difficult to prove.

It’s not provable that hunting with dogs would even cause the population to decrease, Posewitz said. The state’s management plan says that populations increase when hunting with hounds is allowed.

The plan cites a study, the Mt. Emily project based on data from 2009 to 2012, that suggests different survival rates in different areas, with disease and natural mortality being the primary cause of death in southwest Oregon. It suggests that hunting is partially compensatory for cougar mortality, concluding that hunting does not threaten cougar populations.

Before the ban on dogs, Cottam said, 60 percent of the harvests were males. Hunters normally took the larger cats. Since the ban, only about 52 percent of cats reported killed are males.

Hunting of mountain lions has changed as well, he said. Some 67 percent of the hunters who take a cougar are hunting something else at the time. Just one third of successful cougar hunts are by hunters looking specifically for cougars.

“When it comes to trying to manage cougar populations, the most effective way is with dogs,” Cottam said. “It’s very difficult to control a cougar population. What regulates them is the density of their prey.”

Wildlife officials expect the population to level out, Cottam said, although they expect it to continue growing in some places where there are not as many.

“We’ll reach a carrying capacity,” he said.

The most dangerous animal to a cougar is another cougar, Hurn said. Once they reach the carrying capacity of an area, young cougars must look for new territory to avoid other cougars.

Hound hunters could put more pressure on the cougar populations, he said, while removing cougars “administratively” doesn’t seem to have a large impact.

When populations are high, the cougars move around a lot, Cottam said. A male will travel 50 miles and take 103 days to establish a territory. As soon as a cougar is removed, other cougars move right back in.

The damage-causing animals are the young and old cougars, who find hunting livestock easier than hunting wild animals, he said.

Holley resident Chanz Keeney said he lost a calf to a cougar recently at his ranch near Holley School. Trappers were unable to capture the cat.

“I’d like to tell this guy from Portland, that’s nice in Portland,” Keeney said. “We’re seeing cats in town.”

Sweet Home Police recently posted warnings on power poles north of Main Street urging residents to call the police if they spot a cougar. Callers had reported seeing a cougar and two kittens in the area around Northside Park.

“I think hunting with dogs is cruel,” said Wolf Krebs, a retired veterinarian who raises sheep in Holley. He noted that people in England hunted foxes with hounds for 2,000 years, but the practice was banned because the British think it’s cruel.

He asked whether it’s possible to catch cougars with baited traps.

“A trap is more inhumane than a dog,” Keeney said. Other animals get caught in traps. Sitting in a blind waiting to catch a cougar isn’t an option either when people have to go to work.

Another person noted that the deer population is taking a beating and it’s “no wonder they’re moving to town.”

“We have a lot of cougars looking for a place to live,” Cottam said. “Urban areas are attractive to them. We have resident cougars in the city of Eugene living in the city limits. (Seeing one doesn’t) mean that’s the first time it’s been in your yard.”

That means people must learn to live with them, he said. “They are in our towns, and they are actively looking for things to eat.”

Cottam said that ODF&W estimates a population of 6,600 cougars, about half of them adult males and females 2 years old or older. ODF&W’s objective is to manage for a population of 3,000, with about 1,500 adults.

That number provides a large safety net to protect the species in Oregon, he said. At one point, when bounties were offered, the population fell to 200.

Devin Schmidt said that recent sightings follow the fire season, and new territories will probably be stabilized by winter.

While Sweet Home has had five reported sightings in the past month, most of the people in the room have probably been within 20 or 30 feet of a cougar and not even known it, he said.

Schmidt suggested that the state might reimburse livestock owners for their losses to cougars.

“You make my food,” he said. “I do appreciate you. There’s a happy medium somewhere.”

In addition to discussions about controlling cougar populations, law enforcement officials answered questions about killing cougars.

Lt. Todd Hoodenpyl of the Oregon State Police told property owners they could kill a cougar that damages livestock or pets.

Sweet Home Police Chief Jeff Lynn said that people have a right to defend themselves if a cougar is acting aggressively, hissing and growling, or attacks.

They both said people encountering a mountain lion should immediately call 9-1-1 for help.

“Going to a firearm is probably your last resort,” Hoodenpyl said.

Hoodenpyl said that anytime someone kills a cougar, it must be reported to the Oregon State Police, which will investigate the circumstances.

ODFW’s Hurn suggested that property owners corral their livestock and keep humans around the livestock. She said it’s a good idea to have more than one person around the livestock.

She suggested carrying something to make a person look bigger in case of a cougar encounter. She also suggested using something loud or smelly to drive them away.

“If you have a gun and it’s legal to fire it, you don’t have to kill it,” Cottam said. “You can make it feel like it’s not welcome. You have to try to keep them afraid of people.”

The state’s cougar management plan and tips on living with cougars may be viewed at dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/cougar.

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