BIG CAT ENCOUNTERS
By Chris Potter
For The Observer
Sue Monsey heard her six-month-old pygmy goat cry early in the morning last September. She did not expect that when she checked half an hour later that the young goat would be gone.
The remaining goats stood staring into some nearby brush. Monsey decided to take her dogs towards the brush to see what the goats could be watching for. One of the dogs went in, but after sensing what the goats had seen, it quickly ran back to the house.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife came to Sue and Al Monsey's Pumpkin Ridge home, and when they found the covered and partially eaten body of the goat they knew it had been taken by a cougar.
This wasn't the first time that the Monseys lost a goat to a cougar. About 10 years ago when they lived in Elgin they lost one. Three weeks after that, the cougar came back for another.
"It's devastating," said Sue Monsey about losing her goats.
"I just hope it doesn't happen again."
On Aug. 25, the Correll family woke up to find nine of their lambs killed in their pasture by what appeared to be a cougar.
Jim Cadwell of The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife commented that they are responding to "more and more of this type of thing," as he scanned the pasture for tracks.
Cougars are an elusive species, and finding a balanced way to manage them may be elusive as well.
Until 1961 Oregon cougars lived with a bounty on their heads. When the population dropped too dramatically, the bounty was repealed.
In 1994 cougars were hunted with hounds during a one-month to two-month season, depending on the zone. In December 1994 Oregon voters approved Measure 18, which banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars and other animals.
Since the passage of Measure 18, damage caused by cougars has increased. According to Leonard Erickson, a district biologist with the ODFW, in 1994 there were four complaints of cougar damage in Union County. In 1999 the numbers peaked at 21 complaints. In 2002 there were seven complaints, and since July of this year, there have been only three.
Erickson says that the workload involved in verifying cougar sightings has increased. In 1999 there were 75 reported sightings in Union County, and through July of this year there have been 14. Some of the sightings turn out to be false, and sometimes a reported cougar is found to be a less fearsome housecat.
ODFW has set up a quota system in each hunting zone to attempt to keep cougar populations at a desirable level.
The Blue Mountain zone and Columbia Basin zone were the only two that met their quotas for the 2002 cougar hunting season. The statewide quota was 408 cougars; only 224 were harvested.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes in cougar hunting has been the number of licensed hunters. In 1994 there were 563 hunters licensed for cougars in Oregon. Last year there were 32,126 licensed cougar hunters. Erickson said that some of the licensed hunters may not be actively hunting cougar because they received their tag as part of a "sport pack," which includes a variety of tags for fish and game animals.
The state of Washington experienced a similar increase in cougar hunters after it passed Initiative 655, banning the use of hounds, in 1996. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, before I-655 the state had 1,000 licensed cougar hunters. Now it has about 58,000.
Cathy Nowak, a wildlife consultant who has done research on cougar predation, has concerns about the effectiveness of the methods currently used to hunt cougars.
Nowak says that many cougars are taken incidentally by deer and elk hunters who often go further into the wilderness to hunt than hound hunters used to.
She worries that this method of management is leaving "a donut of unmolested animals." In other words, problem-causing cougars near residential areas are being ignored while others in the wilderness are being killed instead.
Nowak believes that hound hunting "was and can be an effective management tool."
Nicole Paquette of the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif., opposes any bills such as House Bill 2436 that would bring hunting dogs back in Oregon, citing the fact that Oregon voters have already rejected the use of dogs.
The institute opposes all hunting of cougars, but especially the use of dogs. They believe that non-lethal methods of protecting property should be exhausted before any animal is killed, said Paquette.
Nowak believes that a lot of "anger over what was perceived as Portland telling us how to manage wildlife," is being taken out on cougars and they are being seen as vermin, much as in the days of cougar bounties.
"Cougars have to have respect for us, and we have to have respect for them," says Nowak.