By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Harry Galloway's convinced there's still a bunch of cougars prowling Oregon, no matter what the state's statistics suggest.
Some of the wildlife biologists who compile those statistics happen to agree with Galloway, who lives in Baker City.
andquot;I don't think (the statistics) represent the actual cougar population,andquot; said Ryan Torland, a biologist who works at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's (ODFW) Baker City office.
Yet neither Galloway, who hunts cougars, nor Torland, who keeps track of cougar hunters, can completely explain why hunters are killing the big cats at a slower rate in 2005 than in any of the previous four years.
Both Galloway and Torland believe that despite this year's trend, Oregon's cougar population, which has grown from about 3,300 to an estimated 5,100 over the past decade, is still rising.
Less than a year ago, in January 2005, five cougars were killed in just a few weeks within a couple miles of New Bridge, near Richland.
None of those cougars counts toward this year's hunting total, however, because those five cats were killed due to a damage complaint they roamed close to homes or, in at least one case, consumed a domestic cat.
Biologists say the abundance of cougars in such a small area discounts the notion that cougar populations are shrinking.
Both biologists and hunters do offer a few theories to explain cougar hunters' comparative lack of success so far this year.
One theory in particular, which both Galloway and Torland mention.
andquot;There just wasn't enough,andquot; said Galloway, who, though he turned 89 last month, is one of Baker County's most energetic hunters.
The scarcity of snow during the winter of 2004-05 robbed cougar hunters of their sharpest tool, Galloway said the ability to follow cougar tracks until they come across the cougar.
Don Whittaker, a biologist who works at ODFW headquarters in Salem, also cites the state's snow shortage as one likely cause for this year's declining cougar harvest.
andquot;Snow is very important for certain hunting techniques,andquot; Whittaker said.
And in particular that one technique tracking a cougar's pawprints in the snow which hunters such as Galloway say happens to be the simplest and most effective strategy since Oregon voters in 1994 approved a ballot measure banning hunters from using dogs to tree cougars or bait to lure them.
From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, hunters killed 141 cougars in Oregon, according to ODFW. (Hunters who kill a cougar are required to take the animal to an ODFW office within 72 hours to have the animal inspected.)
That tally of 141 cougars is 59 fewer than during the same 10-month period in 2004.
And it's 17 fewer than the next slowest year 2001, when hunters tagged 158 cougars between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31.
The five-year average for that 10-month timeframe is 170 cougars.
Whittaker said this year's comparatively paltry number of cougar kills is not due to a lack of hunters.
Although he didn't have an updated figure, he said Monday that there has not been a andquot;dramatic declineandquot; in the number of cougar tags sold in Oregon this year compared with last year's 34,000.
This year's cougar hunting slowdown doesn't surprise George Keister, the district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office. Keister helped write the computer model that ODFW uses to estimate the state's cougar population, and he has contributed to the cougar management plan the agency is writing now.
In 2004 biologists at ODFW's Baker City office examined 30 cougars that were killed in one of Baker County's four hunting units: Sumpter, Lookout Mountain, Keating and Pine Creek.
In 2005, through Oct. 31, the county's cougar total was 13, Keister said.
andquot;It's definitely been more quiet this year,andquot; he said. andquot;Quite a few cougars are killed during harsh weather with deep snow that concentrates the deer, but this year there wasn't much snow for tracking.andquot;
Deer are cougars' favorite prey, so when deer congregate, as they tend to when the temperature falls and the snow depth rises, cougars and cougar hunters usually follow.
That's precisely the hunting tactic that Tim Nork of Baker City relied on to bag four cougars in Baker County over the past two years.
Nork said he killed two cougars in the Sumpter unit this year, one in January, the other in February.
Nork said tracking conditions were good, but only briefly.
andquot;Once the snow melts, finding (a cougar) is by chance only,andquot; he said.
The mild winter's effect on cougar hunters was most pronounced in the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon, which includes Baker County's four units.
For each of the past several years, hunters have killed far more cougars in the Blue Mountains than in any of Oregon's five other cougar-hunting zones.
In 2004, for example, hunters killed 131 cats in the Blue Mountains zone, which ranges from the Ochoco unit near Prineville, east to Hells Canyon and north to the Washington border.
That's almost half of the 265 cougars killed by hunters in Oregon in 2004. The second-ranked zone that year was the Coast/North Cascades, where hunters killed 43 cougars.
Despite this year's downward trend, the Blue Mountains remains the state's cougar-hunting central, accounting for 58 of the 141 cats killed through Oct. 31, 2005, Whittaker said.
Yet hunters are still far behind last year's pace in the Blue Mountains. With two months left in the year, the zone's tally of 58 cougars is less than half the 2004 total.
In some other zones, meanwhile, cougar hunters are closer to their 2004 pace.
In the Southeast Cascades zone, for example, as of Sept. 29 hunters had killed 11 cougars, just three fewer than the total for all of 2004.
Although hunters and biologists agree that the snow shortage contributed to this year's drop in cougar kills, ODFW statistics suggest that other factors have been at work, as well.
Consider, for example, the cougar harvest figures from August, September and October of this year months in which snow was rarely an issue.
Statewide, hunters killed 48 cougars during that three-month period, considerably fewer than for the same period in each of the past four years.
From August through October of 2004, for example, hunters killed 91 cougars in Oregon almost twice as many as this year.
Whittaker surmises that gas prices, which climbed to unprecedented levels in September, might have convinced cougar hunters to leave their rigs in the garage.
andquot;It's pretty spendy to get around the block these days,andquot; Whittaker said.
Nork said he can't even hazard a guess to explain this year's falling cougar-hunting figures.
andquot;That does surprise me,andquot; he said. andquot;I don't understand why the numbers are down. I think the population is going up.andquot;
Nork, 34, has lived in Baker County for 12 years. He said he has seen seven cougars the past two years, including the four cats he killed. But for the 32 previous years, even though he said he spent a lot of time in the woods, he saw only one cougar.