Stalking the Cougar Management Plan

Oregonians' love-hate relationship with cougars is once again before the Legislature, this time in the form of a threatened "budget note" that could halt the state's Cougar Management Plan and a three-year-old study of controlled hunts designed to reduce cougar-human conflicts in selected parts of the state. Lawmakers should wait for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue a formal report on the study in June before taking any action.

In the meantime, critics of the cougar-killing program should stop citing a Washington State University study that concluded killing cougars made conflicts worse. The study was done in Washington, where the circumstances are very different than what is happening here.

Rep. Peter Buckley, co-chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, summoned ODFW officials before a subcommittee of the panel last week to determine whether killing cougars in three study areas, including Southern Oregon, is supported by science and worth the $115,000 a year the program is costing taxpayers. That's a tall order for the ODFW, which is required by law to issue a report in June. Asking the agency to justify its program scientifically before all the data has been analyzed is, well, not very scientific.

Oregon voters banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars in 1996. Since then, wildlife officials estimate the state's cougar population has soared to more than 5,000 from about 3,000 in 1996.

Complaints from the public about cougars encroaching on residential areas and killing livestock also have increased, prompting the ODFW to conduct controlled hunts in problem areas to see if that reduced the number of complaints.

That remains to be seen, but the program certainly succeeded in escalating complaints from wildlife advocates, who say cougars are being cruelly destroyed for doing what comes naturally.

The WSU study the critics cite concluded that hunting cougars results in killing adult males, who keep their distance from human habitation and keep young, inexperienced males away, too. When the adults are killed, the study said, the youngsters move into the empty territory and are responsible for most of the complaints from rural residents.

The problem with applying that study to Oregon is that the Washington Legislature responded to public complaints by allowing public sport hunts, with hounds, in the problem areas. Sport hunters target large adult males as trophies, and those animals are nearly impossible to bag without using dogs.

Oregon does not allow any sport hunting with hounds. ODFW staff and federal wildlife agents working under contract use hounds in the study areas, but they are prohibited from targeting animals by age or gender. In cases of livestock damage or public safety threats, only the offending animal is taken.

Whether the ODFW's control measures are working is still an open question. But pressuring the agency to produce scientific conclusions before the study is complete is counterproductive.

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