The cougar jumped from a patch of thick brush five feet away when local hunter Gary Waddell took his shot.

Waddell, 40, killed the 80-pound female March 16 after finding it and three others hiding just one-quarter of a mile behind his house south of Heppner. Cougar sightings are becoming more common across the area, he said.

“I’d never seen one in the wild until a couple of years ago,”?Waddell said. “Now I?see more and more of them.”

A hunter of 30 years, Waddell said he is in favor of using dogs and bait to manage predators that he said are cutting into elk populations. Enter the Pendleton-based Oregon Outdoor Council, which believes there are enough people feeling the same way to reinstate the practice if given the chance.

The council — representing a coalition of prominent sportsmen and organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and National Rifle Association — is optimistic about proposed legislation that would exempt counties from a long-standing statewide ban on using hounds to hunt cougars.

House Bill 2624 calls for the voters of individual counties to decide if they want to allow dogs for hunting cougars, and dogs or bait for hunting black bears, methods prohibited in Oregon by a ballot measure passed in 1994. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on the new bill April 2, and has scheduled a work session for April 16.

Jerod Broadfoot, OOC?executive director, said it makes sense to vote locally on the issue and let those who live with the predators make their own choice. Opponents, on the other hand, question why the bill is needed and criticize the tactics as cruel and abusive.

Broadfoot, of Pendleton, estimates that most counties would vote in favor of allowing dogs and bait, including northeast Oregon where some of the highest densities of the cougars live.

Cougars, bears and wolves are a deadly combination to the area’s elk and deer herds if left unmanaged, he said.

“We have to use common sense to manage these predators, and that’s all we’re trying to apply,”?Broadfoot said.

Oregon is now home to more than 5,700 native cougars after the animals were nearly eliminated in the mid-1960s, according to the Department of Fish & Wildlife. Hunting season for the big cats is open all year or until management quotas are met. Quotas are 245 in the Blue Mountains, and 62 in the Columbia Basin.

Broadfoot graduated from Willamette University in 2002 with a degree in politics. He knew he wanted to advocate on behalf of fish and wildlife conservation, as well as hunting, trapping and gun ownership rights.

OOC formed two years ago, and together with its partners now represents 70,000 sportsmen and women, Broadfoot said.

“We’ve drawn a major line in the sand to stand up for fish and wildlife conservation,”?he said. “That line is very clearly to show sportsmen and women, on their behalf, that they are the true conservationists.”

Waddell is not a member of the OOC, but said he buys a cougar tag every year.

Steve Cherry, ODFW wildlife biologist in the Heppner district, said the state harvested 516 cougars in 2012, up a little when compared to 2011. But sightings in open country remain “fairly rare.”

“Most sightings are up in the forested habitat, which is where the higher densities are located,”?Cherry said. “I?don’t really sense the cougar populations out in this open country have changed much in the past six years or so.”

Still, Broadfoot said it is a matter of when, not if, a person is attacked by a cougar. The predators have lost their fear of humans and barking dogs, he said.

Scott Beckstead, senior Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States, testified at the April 2 hearing against HB 2624 as well as House Bill 3395, which would require ODFW create a pilot program allowing hunters to use dogs to pursue cougars.

HSUS is opposed to all hunting methods that are “exceptionally cruel and abusive,”?Beckstead said. That’s why the organization is taking such an aggressive stance against these bills.

Beckstead cites ODFW data that cougar complaints are down from a high of 1,072 in 1999 to 287 last year. Hunters killed 242 cougars last year versus 157 in 1999.

“With cougar complaints at an all-time low, why do we need these bills?” Beckstead said. “It has nothing to do with public safety. It has nothing to do with protecting property. It has to do with trophy hunting.”

Beckstead vowed the HSUS will continue the figh to protect Oregon’s top predators. Broadfoot, meanwhile, remains confident they can garner the votes to advance HB 2624 to the state Senate.

Better managing the bear and cougar populations would mean more elk and deer, and more hunters spending more money in rural communities, Broadfoot said.

“We want people to look us in the whites of our eyes and see this is about wildlife management and science-based conservation, and not about the political whim of anti-hunters pushing their moral ideology on the entire state,”?he said.

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