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Gale Culver of Elgin said the cougar population in this area has jumped since 1994 and one way to tell is fewer porcupines are being killed by motor vehicles on roads. This is because cougars are killing more of them, Culver said. Ted Craddock photo
Cougar hunting bills in the Legislature sharpen Oregon’s urban-rural divide
by Harry Esteve/The Oregonian
SALEM — Oregon’s troublesome urban/
Ranchers and hunters squared off with animal rights and environmental advocates over how best to manage the big cats whose population has exploded from about 200 in the 1960s to about 6,000 now, according to state estimates.
“They are one of the most stealthy predators there is,” said Bill Hoyt of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, who described witnessing a cougar kill a newborn calf on his Southern Oregon ranch.
Hoyt was among those testifying in favor of two cougar-related bills before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. One, House Bill 2624, would exempt counties from the statewide prohibition on using dogs to hunt cougars and black bears, if county voters approve. It also would allow the use of bait to hunt bears, which voters banned in 1994.
Another, House Bill 3395, would require the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to design a pilot program that would allow hunters to use dogs to track down and tree cougars. Counties could opt in.
Opponents called the bills unnecessary because complaints of cougar encounters are down while cougar kills are up, according to state statistics. They said the bills would undo the will of voters, and they questioned the state’s ability to count cougars accurately.
Scott Beckstead, Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States, came armed with data from the state that show a steep decline in the number of cougar complaints, from a high of 1,072 in 1999, to 287 in 2012. Over the same period, the data show, the number of cougars killed by hunters has risen from 157 to 242.
Voters didn’t bar cougar and bear hunting, Beckstead noted. And they allowed the continued use of dogs to hunt problem or dangerous animals, he said.
“These bills go far beyond that,” Beckstead said. “They allow the use of dogs and bait for sport. The voters of Oregon have said they don’t want that.”
Ted Craddock of La Grande, who tracks cougars with hounds for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, supports the proposed legislation.
“I think it is a great idea, something needs to be done, things are getting out of hand,’’ Craddock said by phone Friday from his home.
He said deer and elk populations are down in this area because of growing cougar numbers. Craddock also believes that higher local cougar numbers are driving more deer into Union County towns.
“They have learned that if they stay (in town), the cougars will not bother them,’’ Craddock said.
The La Grande houndsman said cougars are more likely to come near people’s homes because of the restriction on the use of dogs to pursue them. Craddock said that before the use of dogs was banned in 1994 he could scare cougars away from homes with his hounds.
“Before we could run them off, we never had to kill them,’’ Craddock said.
The cougars pushed away from homes by Craddock’s hounds stayed away.
“We never would catch them coming back to the houses,’’ Craddock said.
Gale Culver of Elgin also supports the proposed legislation.
“It sounds alright. I think it should have been passed long ago,’’ Culver said on Saturday.
Culver raised hounds for tracking cougars until the use of dogs for cougar hunting was banned in 1994. He said he would consider raising and training hounds again if it becomes legal to use them for hunting.
Culver said the cougar population in this area has jumped since 1994. One way to tell is that we now see fewer porcupines killed by motor vehicles on roads. This is because cougars are killing more of them, Culver said.
Cougars eat porcupines after learning to avoid their quills. The quills they do swallow dissolve in their stomach in about an hour, according the website chintiminwilldlife.org.
In some ways, the hearing in Salem last week was a replay of the arguments and tensions that played out in headlines and campaign ads in 1994, when the ban on hunting bear and cougars with dogs and bait was put on the ballot as a citizen initiative. It passed overwhelmingly, helped along by lopsided votes in Multnomah and other urban counties. Most rural counties voted against it.
An effort to repeal the ban two years later failed on a statewide vote.
During the hearing, lawmakers and citizens who support the bills talked about close encounters between humans and cougars. Those stories were countered and dismissed by opponents.
Jayne Miller, who heads the preservation-minded Oregon Cougar Action Team, said many complaints of cougar sightings and encounters aren’t documented. “These are ghost stories,” she said. “We cannot base sound science on ghost stories.”
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who is sponsoring the cougar hunting pilot program bill, said she has no doubts that cougars in Oregon are becoming braver and more willing to come into contact with people.
“I hear over and over, no one has been killed by a cougar yet in Oregon,” she said. “Is that what we’re waiting for?”
A clear complaint from many who spoke is that Oregon has different needs in its rural districts than its urban areas, and there’s an overriding sense that urban voters hold sway. They said HB 2624, which allows voters in each county to decide cougar and bear hunting policy, is fairer than a statewide vote.
Frank Hupp, president of the Oregon Hunters Association of Columbia County, took issue with the “voters have spoken” argument.
“The voters who spoke were from the Willamette Valley,” he said. “If you have a ranch in Eastern Oregon, you have completely different needs than you do in the Willamette Valley.”
Where the bills head from here is unclear. Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said he would check with other committee members before deciding whether to call for a vote on the bills to send them to the House floor.
But he clearly isn’t comfortable with the threat posed by the increasing number of cougars. “My concern is, if it’s livestock now, it might be children and human beings in the future.”
— The Observer reporter Dick Mason contributed to this report