Woodland stream.

Plan would thin cougar numbers

Wildlife - Oregon would target areas of high density, but opponents question the proposal

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission plans to vote today on a new plan to trim the state's burgeoning cougar population -- a policy that has both hunters and wildlife advocacy groups on high alert.

No cougar in Oregon has attacked and killed a person in the state's recent history, despite a growing population of both the predator and humans. Yet complaints about cougars -- also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers -- have increased along with their numbers.

In the latest assessment, state biologists estimate Oregon has 5,100 cougars, a remarkable comeback from near extinction about 40 years ago.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now wants to kill cougars at an increased level by targeting areas in the state with high densities of cats.

The department hopes to maintain at least 3,000 cougars statewide. But it has no intention of killing 2,000 cougars -- instead it will target only enough to manage the population, said Ron Anglin, the agency's wildlife division administrator. It's up to the commission to help set up the guidelines, he said.

Government hunters, who are allowed to hunt with dogs -- unlike sports hunters -- would do much of the killing. From 1995 to 2003, state-appointed hunters killed an average of 138 cougars annually outside of hunting season.

"We have had a lot of close encounters where cougars have been acting in a very aggressive manner," Anglin said. "It's a combination of the human population growing as the cougar population is growing."

Cougars rarely attack humans, but when they do, the strike is ferocious. They typically stalk their prey, then bite and snap the neck. Lions then stash their kill, returning to feed later. In 1991, in Colorado Springs, Colo., a cougar attacked and killed a jogger. In Orange County, Calif., in 2004, a cougar killed a bicyclist on a jogging trail.

Some opponents of the new management plan question the state's cougar numbers, saying they're based on faulty science. The Humane Society of the United States, the Sierra Club and Eugene-based Predator Defense argue against the increased killing of mountain lions.

But hunters are still fuming over the 1994 passage of Measure 18 that banned the use of dogs in hunting cougars. They object to increased hunting by government agents with hounds.

Duane Dungannon, state coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association, said his organization wants a return to the use of hounds for sport hunting.

"We're left with the situation where the best we can do is hire government agents to manage the cougar population," he said. "We pay for that" -- through hunting license fees.

Sport hunters do continue to stalk cougars, albeit without the aid of hunting dogs. In 2001, hunters in Oregon killed 220 cougars; in 2002, they killed 230 cougars, and in 2003, the latest year with figures available, they killed 241.

The new cougar management plan, if adopted by the commission, would be the first one in place since Measure 18 passed, Anglin said. Currently, the state spends about $250,000 annually on cougar management. Under the new plan, those costs would climb to about $436,000 to $589,000 annually.

Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, believes the new management strategy is bad news. He said he doubts the state accounting of cougars is accurate. As a result, the state could be hunting the cats to a level too low for sustainability.

"It sets a precedent. They will kill more animals," Fahy said. "From a biological point of view, it's not necessary. I'm against the hunting of an animal purely as a trophy."

Peter Sleeth: 503-294-4119; petersleeth@news.oregonian.com


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