Cougar town hall draws overflow crowd in Lebanon

An overflow crowd showed up Thursday, Aug. 19 at the Lebanon Library to tell Rep. Sherrie Sprenger what they thought about cougars.

The town meeting drew approximately 150 people, far more than the 100-seat library conference room could hold, but Sprenger had the rear doors opened and turned the mic up so those standing on the patio outside could hear.

The meeting was called after six cougars were trapped over the past two months on one sheep ranch on Courtney Creek Road.

Sprenger told the crowd she wanted to hear from them on how they thought the problem should be dealt with.

“I don’t want to have this meeting to talk about a kid,” she said. “We get the stoplight after somebody’s killed. Cougars are majestic, beautiful animals. But I love my 13-year-old son. That’s why we’re having this.”

Most of the approximately 20 people who spoke told how cougars were killing their livestock and how the problem is getting worse.

Several said they have lost sheep and cattle to cougars and coyotes, one stating that he had lost “60-some” lambs to coyotes.

Bruce Sylvester of Lacomb said he’s had to euthanize three horses that were attacked by cougars and saw five cougars on his property recently.

“I find three kills a week,” he said.

Representatives of the Oregon State Police, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Program discussed the problem and the roles their agencies play in dealing with cougars and other predators.

ODFW Deputy Director Curt Melcher reviewed the history of cougars in Oregon over the past century, noting that there were no regulations on hunting or trapping the animals until the mid-1960s, when the population of the big cats in the state dropped to an estimated 200.

“Back in the 1960s, you could talk to anybody and they’d never seen a cougar,” he said.

In the 1960s, cougars were reclassified from predatory to game animals and were protected by hunting regulations, and by the early 1990s their number had grown to an estimated 3,000.

In 1994 Oregon voters passed a ballot measure banning the use of dogs or bait in hunting cougars and bears, and the number of cougars in the state now is estimated at 6,000, Melcher said.

“It’s fairly intuitive,” he said of the population increase. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know there’s going to be conflict.”

State Police Lt. Ethan Wilson said his agency and others dealing with wildlife are required to enforce the policies established by the Legislature or “the will of the voters.”

“That’s what we are compelled to abide by,” he said.

Dave Williams, state director for the USDA Wildlife Program, oversees the trappers working under contract with 28 Oregon counties.

He said that in those counties last year there were 344 incidents of conflicts between humans and cougars, 146 of which involved livestock and 97 human health and safety.

He said the average cost to put a trapper in the field is between $70,000 and $80,000 per year, for equipment, a vehicle and salary.

He warned that if the county follows through with predictions that it may have to reduce by more than half the $49,900 it is paying this year for a trapper, “that’s a huge hit” and would likely result in loss of the trapper or reduction of the program from year-round to six months.

“We have our fingers crossed that the state and county will stick with us, that the state economy will get a little bit better and take some pressure off the county budget,” Williams said.

W.R Giesy of Philomath, who farms in both Linn and Benton counties, said local farmers are being “decimated” by predators.

“The county trapper is the last line of defense right now between us and all of us going out of business,” he said, urging attendees to contact their county commissioners and “tell them we need continued funding for the trapper. We have the best county trapper in the state of Oregon sitting right here. He’s all we have.

“We’ve reached the point that this is a health and safety issue.”

A few speakers cautioned the audience not to overreact to the increased numbers of cougars.

Jayne Miller of Jefferson, a representative of the Oregon Cougar Action Team, said that the problem at the Courtney Creek location was that “something was out of balance” €“ probably that the resident cougar in the area had been killed, which increased the flow of transient cougars.

“A resident cougar is your best friend,” Miller said. “It keeps other cougars out of the area.”

She said she grew up on an Eastern Oregon cattle ranch and has been around predators since childhood.

“I’ve seen them all my life,” Miller said. “I am here today, unscathed.”

She said that she learned from her father how to protect livestock from predators “and it works.”

Several speakers bemoaned the inability of hunters to deal with the problem.

Melcher described hunting as “the most effective management tool” for cougars.

Sprenger told the crowd she believes Oregon should take some cues from the state of Washington, which banned hunting with hounds shortly after Oregon did, but now permits strictly controlled hunting of cougars with dogs in all counties in an effort to control the numbers of the big cats.

Melcher said that ODFW has allowed use of hounds during the past three years on a limited basis in “specific target areas” to remove problem cats. The program costs some $100,000 per year.

Craig Starr of Albany, a hunter who doesn’t own livestock, said he’s concerned about the effect the high numbers of cougars €” and bears, for that matter €” are having on deer and elk populations.

He and several other speakers suggested that voters should pay the price of dealing with the cougar problems.

“I’d like to see all of the residents of the state paying for the cost of what voters did by taking management out of the hands of the people who knew what they were doing,” he said, drawing raucous applause. “I think it’s just foolish that we pay government to do something that we could be doing on our own.”

Tina Dove of Lebanon said the issue needs to be put back on the ballot for voters.

“Go back to the people and let the people pay for it,” she said. “If they don’t want to pay for it, keep your mouth shut.”

Sprenger said that, contrary to reports on the Internet, she wasn’t introducing new legislation to deal with the cougar problem on Thursday, but promised there will be some by the time the new session starts in January.

“We don’t have legislation yet,” she said.