A half century ago, cougars were nearly wiped out in Oregon. Wildlife officials estimated the population to be around 200. But the animal was soon reclassified from predator, a potential menace, to a game mammal, or wild creature whose welfare could be safeguarded by the state. The cats multiplied. Just 20 years ago, the number had reached about 3,000.
Still, Oregonians were appalled at the thought hunters could be led by sniffing dogs to the elusive creatures and then killed. So a statewide ban on the use of hounds was passed by a citizens initiative ballot, leaving cougar hunters with the same hard-earned techniques they employ in stalking and shooting elk or deer.
Today there are about 5,850 cougars roaming the woods and fields of Oregon. Thats a nearly 30-fold rebound in the cougar population not bad when you consider housing developments and roadways cut well into the cat's natural habitat as Oregons human population expanded. Meanwhile, dogless cougar hunters come up fairly empty-handed when cougars are all they seek; the cougars they take tend to show up on elk or deer hunts. The word stealthy is appropriately applied to a creature that, despite its impressive numbers, is rarely seen.
But cougars leave more than their tracks. They feed on deer and elk and, for the easiest kills of all, livestock at ranches, leaving carcasses behind and where they can be shot dead. Occasionally, they show up in suburban neighborhoods, where panicked parents round up school children and family pets have been known to disappear. In those moments, the confused cats are typically treed and shot by wildlife officials with a tranquilizer before being carted off to the woods. Cougars may be majestic, but they remain wide-ranging predators. Thats their nature.
Now a bill is taking shape in the Legislature that would allow individual counties to exempt themselves from the no-hound rule applying to cougar hunting. The bill, taken up today in a work session, would otherwise leave Oregon's hound ban in place.
Is this a thumb in the eye of the statewide initiative process? Or does it honor the fact that some of Oregon's rural counties, where ranching and game hunting are mainstays of the local economy, might have another view of how cougars and humans should get on?
The latter. The bill, wisely streamlined to no longer address bear-hunting, deserves support not only because rural Wallowa County is not urban Multnomah County but because its enactment would sharpen the role of Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife in right-sizing the cougar population.
Fish and Wildlife already goes out to thin cougars in areas where evidence shows cougars are pushing deer or elk populations downward. And it sometimes authorizes independent contractors to chase cougars down with hounds. Yet the agency's statewide quotas for allowable cougar kills in some areas exceed the number of cougars taken. In 2012, state rules allowed for the killing of 777 cougars. But sport hunters took only 252, while another 272 were taken in reported incidents, most of them involving livestock predation.
House Bill 2624, hardly a proxy for yee-ha hunting by lazy guys with dogs, could change the score sheet while allowing Fish and Wildlife to exert the right controls.
If so amended, the bill would live comfortably alongside Oregons hound ban. And it would invite Oregon's most rural counties, which depend economically not only on ranching but also on elk and deer hunting, to address a cougar challenge that needs peculiarly local solutions.