Legislature has chance to do cougars right

With the passage in the state House of Representatives last week of Rep. Sherrie Sprenger’s bill to create pilot programs to hunt cougars with dogs, the onus is on the state Senate to correct a mistake made by well-meaning but short-sighted voters who passed Measure 18 in 1994.

The Oregon House of Representatives passed House Bill 2337 45-14 on April 20. The bill, carried by Sprenger, allows for the creation of pilot programs in which permitted persons can hunt or pursue cougars using one or more dogs. The pilot programs would be launched in select areas with documented cougar threats to human, livestock, or pet safety.

HB 2237 is part of a package of three bills by Sprenger and other legislators, including state Sen. Frank Girod, who represents the Sweet Home area, to establish parameters that would allow improved management of cougar populations in the state.

The other two are HB 3428, which creates a pilot program allowing use of dogs in certain areas of the state and HB 3326, which allows use of dogs to hunt cougars during the final three months of cougar seasons if quotas have not been met.

The word “mistake” in our opening sentence may sound harsh, but that’s what it was. Measure 18 effectively has tied the hands of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which, whatever its strengths or weaknesses, is the agency with its feet on the ground when it comes to cougar management. Unfortunately, when humans and cougars begin mixing extensively, some population management is necessary. There’s a big difference between seeing a cougar in the forest 10 mlies from town and seeing one in a parking lot.

According to wildlife officials, cougar populations in Oregon have more than doubled since 1994, far in excess of the numbers the drafters of Measure 18 apparently had in mind. Not only has the rising number of cougars resulted in significant losses to the livestock industry, Oregon has also suffered from deer and elk numbers dramatically depleting through the state, which comes as no surprise to the local hunting population.

For example, the number of elk in the Wenaha Unit in eastern Oregon dropped from over 5,000 to 1,000 between 1994 and 2006. At one point, 75 percent of elk calves were killed by cougars, officials say.

In attempts to slow the cougar population explosion, ODFW has cut the cost of cougar tags, expanded hunting seasons and allowed hunters to purchase two tags. These have improved the agency’s revenue but done little to stem the cougar population increase and resulting damage and human safety complaints.

ODFW biologists have also conducted “studies” of the effects that killing a segment of the cougar populations would have on elk calf survival, public safety complaints and other cougar problems in different parts of the state. Between 2006 and 2009, government and private hunters took 97 cougars at a cost to the state of just under $3,000 per animal, most of them using dogs.

We don’t have to trot out the evidence for the local population, which is well aware of the steadily increasing presence of the animals on our roads and in our yards – even in town.

Opponents of using hounds to hunt cougars argue that the practice is cruel and unsporting. They argue that more cougars are killed by hunters and poachers than are reported and that ODFW and legislators are working with faulty numbers. Most who oppose the hunting of cougars, we confidently say, don’t live where cougars live. But the fact is, under the current system, cougars are proliferating.

We doubt that most people in Sweet Home really hate cougars. But the big cats do cause a problem when they become too numerous.

When you have to tell your kids to always have a dog or another person with them when they walk, jog or ride the country roads, that’s a problem. When hunters have difficulty even seeing a live deer where once they were common, when they stumble upon carcass after carcass in the local forests, that’s a problem. Yes, no one has been attacked, but as cougars become more common, the odds of that happening increase.

These bills amend an initiative and therefore require a two majority vote by the legislature. We trust that, with the loud clamor coming from rural communities, typified by Sprenger’s town hall meeting in Lebanon last summer that packed out the Lebanon Library’s community room, legislators who don’t live in the woods will realize that this is a bigger picture than they can see from their urban homes and offices and will make a wise decision – the right one – this time.