Something about cougars elicits a strong reflex among Oregon wildlife managers. Two decades after voters approved an initiative banning the use of hounds to hunt cougars and bears, and prohibiting bear-hunting with bait, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife continues its efforts to find ways around the law — but only in the case of cougars. Bears have been left alone, with no discernible ill effects. There’s a lesson in that.
To be sure, the voters left the department with a wide range of motion. Measure 18, approved in 1994 and reaffirmed at the polls two years later, bans what the voters regard as a cruel and unsporting method of hunting cougars, but leaves the door wide open to other types of hunting. The measure also allows cougars to be killed by any means, including hound hunting, if they cause any problems for livestock or humans. Evidence of such problems can be weak — if a cougar is sighted, it can be killed.
As a result, the number of cougars killed each year is higher than it was before 1994. The wildlife agency sold more than 56,000 cougar tags to hunters last year, 100 times the number in 1994 — mainly because it includes the tags as part of a package deal. But Measure 18 has had some benefit; hound-hunters no longer routinely cull the cougar population for the biggest specimens as trophies.
Such culling will resume in some parts of Oregon, however, as a result of the department’s designation of four target areas where deputized trophy hunters will use hounds to pursue cougars. The four areas total more than 6,000 square miles — three are in Southeastern Oregon, the fourth is in the Roseburg vicinity. In the first three, the stated objective of a reduction in the number of cougars will be to increase the mule deer population. In the fourth area, hunting is intended to reduce conflicts between cougars and livestock or humans.
If cougars were responsible for declines in mule deer, and if killing cougars would reverse the declines, there might be some justification for the target areas. But mule deer populations have been falling for half a century, before and after Measure 18. The primary reason is not predation, but a decline in the quantity and quantity of forage. The agency’s own experience shows that it is unable to document significant changes in mule deer populations in cougar-hunting target areas.
And if cougars are the cause of conflicts with humans and livestock in the fourth target area, Measure 18 already allows the cougars causing the problems to be killed. Indeed, by allowing systematic hunting of trophy cougars in the target area, the department invites more conflicts. When trophy cougars are killed, their vacant territories are filled by juveniles that may be less cautious around humans. Studies show that hunting disrupts the structure of the cougar population in ways that increase livestock predation rather than reduce it.
Dr. Robert Wiegus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, reviewed the department’s 2010 cougar management plan and found it deficient in many respects. He concluded, “There is no scientific evidence that administrative removals achieved any of the state goals (reduced complaints, livestock depredations, and increased elk calves).” The bloodless phrase “administrative removals” means state-approved killing of cougars, as will occur in the target areas. Wiegus recommended that the department “go back to the drawing board.”
The agency can also go back to honoring the voters’ intent, as it has done with bears, and stop trophy hunting of cougars. Predators and prey will find balance, if the state will let them.