Decisions have consequences. The decision on the part of Oregon voters to pass Measure 18 in 1994, which outlawed the use of dogs in hunting cougars, began a series of consequences with far reaching, though not unforeseen effects. The primary and most visible effect was the rapid increase in statewide population of the big cats. In order to appreciate the significance of this increase, it is necessary to understand cougar life history.
Cougars are solitary and highly territorial animals. Although adult males, which may command more than 100 square miles, will tolerate females within their territories, any male intruder will be hunted down and killed. As kittens approach two years old and are evicted from their mother's care, they must find space of their own. When cougar numbers are high, traditional backcountry areas are full and immature cats must learn to live around people if they are to survive. All across the state, cougars are denning, raising young and occasionally living for years within city limits. Although some cats are remarkably adept at staying under the radar, others are attracted to livestock, family dogs and children.
Historically, cougars in Oregon were poisoned, trapped and shot on sight. In 1967 the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) assumed management control and imposed strict protective measures. At that point, biologists estimated there were fewer than 100 animals left in the state. As the numbers increased, ODFW expanded hunting opportunities, and by 1994 there were approximately 3,200 cougars in Oregon. Until then, almost all cougars were taken by hunters using dogs to track and tree them. Since the prohibition on use of dogs, cougar numbers have increased to approximately 5,700 animals.
State wildlife managers have attempted to slow this increase by reducing the cost of cougar tags, expanding hunting seasons and allowing hunters to purchase two tags. These have improved the agency's money flow but the resulting take has not kept up with the increasing cougar population, nor has it done much to dampen increasing damage and human safety complaints.
And so ODFW found a creative way to control cougar numbers; they call it research. Under pressure from rural legislators, ODFW biologists agreed to study the effects that killing a bunch of cougars would have on elk calf survival, livestock damage complaints and public safety concerns in different parts of the state. Between 2006 and 2009, government and private hunters took 97 cougars at a cost to the state of just under $3,000 per animal. The majority of these ‘research' cougars were taken using dogs.
Predictably, data derived from these ‘studies' is marginal at best, (not that anyone really believes this is serious research) but that's not going to stop ODFW from proposing the creation of at least four more zones next year where a few dozen more cougars can be ‘researched.'
The unfortunate part of this whole situation is not that ODFW biologists are being required, against their better judgment, to conduct pseudo-science. Legislators regularly force the agency to do stupid things. It is that in presenting those efforts as research, ODFW is helping keep Oregonians in the dark about the real cougar situation in their state, which is dangerous and getting worse.
And numbers are only part of the story. More and more cougars are being raised in close proximity to people and without their natural fear of humans. Saying it is only a matter of time before a human fatality results is trite, but accurate nonetheless. And under current conditions, it won't be much time.
What we need now is honesty. ODFW officials should abandon the research sham and admit they are simply doing their best to protect people and minimize livestock damage. They should make the case, in an honest and forthright fashion, for the need to control cougar numbers. Perhaps in doing so, they will help Oregon legislators develop the courage to reinstitute the legal use of dogs in hunting cougars.
Unfortunately, it is virtually certain that neither honesty nor courage will suddenly appear, just as it is certain that no change in Oregon cougar management will take place until someone is badly injured or killed in a cougar attack. Then all hell will break loose and people will look for someone to blame. But it's a safe bet that few of them will look in a mirror.
Pat Wray can be reached at email@example.com.