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Attack prompts questions on whether to kill more cougars

September 16, 2018

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — What happens now?

In the wake of Oregon’s first fatal attack by a cougar — and the second deadly attack in the Northwest this year — the question of how best to manage the state’s big cat population has reached the forefront.

Even before a cougar attacked and killed 55-year-old hiker Diana Bober in Mount Hood National Forest last week, mountain lions were already in the public eye.

Their increasing numbers — an estimated 6,600 statewide — have pushed the predators closer to Oregon’s population centers, officials said. That’s led to a series of high-profile incidents in The Dalles, Ashland, Silverton and Dallas.

Complaints about cougars have tripled in the Willamette Valley since 2011. And the number of cougars killed due to human or livestock conflicts reached 169 animals in 2016, according to state records.

Hunters say they’ve seen the problem coming for years, ever since a ballot initiative in 1994 outlawed the use of hounds to hunt cougars.

They say it eliminated the most effective tool for managing cougar numbers and allowed the population to skyrocket.

“This is a statistical problem now,” said Jim Akenson, a longtime cougar biologist now working for the Oregon Hunters Association. “The more cougars you have on the landscape, the greater the chance of a negative encounter. If their numbers continue to grow, you do worry about this happening again.”

Akenson said reinstating hound hunting would not only bring cougar numbers down to healthier levels — around 3,500 animals statewide, he said — it would also reestablish a greater fear of humans in animals increasingly brazen about showing up in populated areas, he said.

Akenson said he’d take a county-by-county approach, looking to cap cougar numbers based on local conditions.

Environmental groups strongly disagree. They point out how rare fatal attacks by cougars are and say hunting causes more problems than it fixes.

“This is an absolute tragedy — a person has died — but we have to remember that this is very, very rare,” said Dr. John W. Laundré, a professor at Western Oregon University and a board member of the environmental group Predator Defense.

This is Oregon’s first confirmed fatal attack over a long history, he noted.

Three people have been killed in California and Colorado in cougar attacks, while two have died in Washington, including earlier this year, when a cougar attacked two mountain bikers near North Bend, killing one of them.

“If you look at it objectively, how few incidents occur really speaks to how well cougars live with us,” Laundré said. “Deer kill far more people than cougars by being on the highway and getting hit by a car. Should we wipe out every deer seen near a road?”

In terms of management, hunting is actually among the worst ways to control a population, Laundré said.

Oregon sport hunters killed an average of 261 cougars each year during the past decade, according to state numbers, even as cougar numbers kept increasing.

“There’s no evidence that hunting reduces cougar numbers,” Laundré said.

Even worse, he said, “using sport hunting as a way of controlling them kills animals that aren’t causing any problems, it disrupts the social order, so you have these young male cats that don’t get the training they need.”

Laundré suggested California’s model, which removes mountain lions that cause problems but hasn’t allowed sport hunting since 1990. California’s population is estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 animals.

Hunters say they could control the population, but need hounds to achieve that goal.

“The harvest of (cougars) would be doubled if hounds were allowed,” Akenson said. “Plus, they impart a man-fear response from cougars that tends to keep cats more wary.”

Cougars were once abundant in Oregon, but similar to other predators, such as wolves, that started to change with the arrival of settlers in the 1800s.

Before Oregon was even an official state, bounties were placed on cougars. The bounty was $10 per animal in 1911 and $25 by 1925.

“The most effective and devastating method was poison,” Derek Broman, carnivore coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Statesman Journal earlier this year.

The number of animals dropped sharply to an estimated 200 by the 1960s.

But, unlike wolves, cougars never went extinct in Oregon. A few pockets remained, mostly in the southwest and northeast.

“My belief is that unlike wolves, which are pack animals and easier to find, cougars are solitary and prefer really difficult terrain for humans,” Broman said. “They likely persisted because there were pockets of them where humans just couldn’t reach.”

In 1967 cougars were declared a “game animal” and subject to regulation by state officials. Bag limits were established for hunting cougars, which allowed their numbers to rebound to around 2,000 animals by 1987, according to ODFW.

Should there be a statewide cap on cougars?

Once the number of cougars rebounded, their numbers continued to grow and expand into just about any place with a food source — mainly, deer and elk.

The number of cougars increased at a consistent clip, growing steadily to today’s estimated total of 6,600.

A big question has been whether the state should establish a hard cap on cougar numbers.

Broman told the Statesman Journal earlier this year that they project Oregon being able to support around 7,600 cougars statewide, although that wasn’t a number they necessarily believe they’ll reach.

“The arrival of wolves has brought a lot of uncertainty, so trying to pick a hard number right now would be tricky and might end up bring inaccurate in the future,” Broman said.

For the moment, state officials haven’t commented on whether the current situation will mean any change in cougar management policy going forward.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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