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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow COALITION HOPES TO OVERTURN STATE'S COUGAR LAW

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COALITION HOPES TO OVERTURN STATE'S COUGAR LAW

By James Sinks

WesCom Capitol Reporter

SALEM — Oregon's voter-imposed ban on using bait and hounds to hunt bears and cougars is in the cross hairs at the Capitol.

A coalition of agriculture and hunting groups is asking the Legislature to overturn the law, which was passed by voters in 1994 and then reaffirmed on the 1996 ballot. They cite concerns about the state's growing cougar population and its impact on wildlife numbers — and potentially on people as well.

"We're talking about extreme public safety concerns," said Jared Broadfoot, a lobbyist representing the coalition.

A cougar was shot and killed in November in rural Pine Valley, east of Baker City, after it tried to pounce through the back door at a family inside its home.

Nancy Denig, who was at home with three sons, said the cat was sickly yet showed no fear — and had scared the family dog, a Rottweiler mix, under the front steps.

"They are really down in the valley now," she said. "We have little kids and a big back yard, but until this happened we never felt so strongly about the law."

Denig said the state needs to make cougars afraid of dogs again by re-opening the door to hound hunts.

But animal-rights activists say any such repeal would be a slap in the face to the public.

"Every session there are bills introduced to overturn this measure and it's getting old," said Sally Mackler of Jacksonville, the state's wildlife coordinator for the Sierra Club.

"The voters twice reaffirmed they want these protections in place for these animals."

Mackler said different laws are already in place that allow cougars that pose a threat to humans or animals to be tracked and killed.

Still, this year's effort to repeal the law appears to have more momentum than previous attempts, said Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Sublimity, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The catalyst is growing alarm statewide about the possibility of attacks on humans, particularly children.

"I don't believe anyone who voted twice for this type of law expected it would lead to the eventuality of a child being eaten," Kropf said.

The issue is a personal priority, he said, because a former neighbor's child was attacked by a cougar while on vacation in Washington state.

A bill to repeal the dog-and-bait hunting ban has been filed as House Bill 2436.

Cougar numbers have grown from about 2,500 statewide in 1992 to between 4,000 and 5,000 last year, said Larry Cooper, deputy administrator for the wildlife division of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Black bear numbers have remained constant, with about 25,000 of them statewide.

In 2002 there were 387 cougars killed in the state, including 229 killed by hunters and 22 because they were deemed a threat to humans or pets, according to state figures.

Cooper said the agency considers bait and hounds tools that can be used to help manage wildlife numbers.

Al Elkins, lobbyist for the Oregon Hunters Association, said he hopes legislators agree to an outright repeal rather than asking voters to take up the issue a third time.

"There is more of an awareness that there is a problem with cougars safety-wise," he said.

But Gov. Ted Kulongoski isn't going to sign the bill in its current form, said Jim Myron, the governor's natural resources policy adviser. "If we are going to be concerned about the public voice then we need to listen to what the public has said," Myron said.

The governor is interested in having a conversation about ways to protect public safety.

"The department may have felt it lost a tool in its toolbox, but it wouldn't say bear and cougars are unmanageable without using hounds," Myron said.

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