Those silly cougars. They sure have a bad sense of timing, at least when it comes to state politics. Before each legislative session, we’re told that there’s a cougar problem in Oregon. Suddenly, a swarm of cougars are prowling our neighborhoods, schoolyards and farms. It’s like clockwork. The same fear-based stories magically appear just before lawmakers return to Salem; legislation is drafted to repeal Measure 18 and turn packs of howling dogs loose once again on our state’s wildlife (Jan. 12, “Oregon Cougar Population Booming”).
Oregonians approved Measure 18 in 1994 to end the cruel and unsporting practice of hounding cougars. Two years later, by an even larger majority, voters re-affirmed Measure 18 by rejecting a measure to repeal it. Measure 18 allows wildlife managers to use hounds to control individual cougars who pose some threat to property or public safety, and that system has worked well in addressing cougar complaints. But some wildlife officials continue to claim there are too many cougars, and advocate a method of hunting that Oregon voters have declared unacceptable.
What Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t tell the public is that cougars are killed in far greater numbers than before Measure 18 passed. Moreover, a 2013 study from Washington State University’s Wielgus Carnivore Lab — the nation’s preeminent authority on cougar biology — showed as cougar complaints increased, wildlife officials lengthened seasons and increased bag limits to respond to what they believed was a rapidly growing cougar population. What the study found, however, was that heavy cougar killing actually increased complaints and livestock depredations.
In other words, killing cougars is counterproductive. Hunters target the big, trophy-sized males — the very animals that keep the population in check — because the old toms kill immigrating younger animals. When those dominant cats are killed by trophy hunters, multiple juveniles take their space. But they are just youngsters, not yet adept at hunting on their own and so they turn up close to humans looking for easy prey.
And what of ODFW’s claim about Oregon’s “booming” cougar population? Unfortunately, ODFW has only used one study in a cougar-rich habitat. The agency then applied that population density across the state without making adjustments for areas that are poor cougar habitat. Cougar biologists have criticized that model as resoundingly unreliable and inaccurate.
According to Cougar Management Guidelines, co-authored by 13 leading cougar biologists and reviewed by dozens more, the most reliable method to count cougars is from radio-telemetry studies. The results of which must be carefully applied to other areas. In addition, managers often use sightings or livestock depredations as a way to count lions, but often don’t follow through to verify those complaints. None of these methods are a reliable way to count cougars, say the cougar experts.
Cougar biologists — the scientists who make it their business to understand these animals better than any other species — agree that cougars themselves do the best job of limiting their own numbers. The best way to ensure a stable population is not higher bag limits or the return of hounding, but to allow the cougar population to manage itself.
Don’t let the small faction of trophy hunters who want a head and a skin for their walls use irrational fears to overturn our decisive votes to protect this iconic species. Their way results in more complaints and livestock losses. And whenever you start hearing about “booming” cougar populations or stories about cougars lurking on every street corner, check your calendar — usually, the legislative session is about to begin.