By JAYSON JACOBY
Cougars slink through the woods, plenty elusive and silent as smoke, but the big cats can't outwit snow.
Blizzards, it seems, can prove just as deadly to cougars as heavy-caliber bullets.
Oregon hunters killed fewer cougars in 2005 than in any year since 2001.
But this year hunters, with an assist from the aforementioned snowstorms, seem intent on proving that 2005 was an anomaly rather than the start of a trend.
Through the first 10 months of 2006, sport hunters killed 193 cougars in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
That's 52 more cougars, which also are known as mountain lions, than hunters harvested during the same period in 2005.
About 39,000 people bought a cougar-hunting tag this year, several hundred more than in 2005, according to ODFW.
Cougar harvest figures for the Blue Mountains zone, which includes Baker County, mirror the statewide statistics.
As of Nov. 1, hunters had killed 82 cougars in the Blue Mountains, one of the state's six cougar-hunting zones.
In 2005, by contrast, hunters harvested 58 cougars in the Blue Mountains during the first 10 months of the year.
This year's 10-month total is just eight fewer cougars than hunters bagged in all of 2005 in the Blue Mountains zone.
So what happened in 2006 that didn't happen in 2005?
Quite a lot of things, but only one is of particular importance in a discussion of cougar hunting:
It snowed hard, and it snowed often, to be specific, at least compared with 2005.
And snow, hunters and wildlife biologists agree, is as important a tool for cougar hunters as are sharp eyes and a steady trigger finger.
Snow might be even more important, in fact.
andquot;It makes all the difference,andquot; said Tim Nork, a Baker City resident who's been hunting cougars in Northeastern Oregon for several years.
When snow covers the ground, non-winged animals cougars, for instance, which can leap quite far but can't actually fly leave tracks on the frozen tableau.
And hunters are much more likely to find a cougar if they first find a cougar's pawprints, Nork said.
Snow was scarce in Northeastern Oregon during the winter of 2004-05.
In some parts of the region, in fact, the mountain snowpack that winter was the shallowest since 1976-77.
The winter of 2005-06, pardon the pun, was the polar opposite.
Snow was plentiful, but that wasn't the only advantage the weather afforded cougar hunters.
Temperatures plunged last winter, as well, and the combination of cold and deep snow prompted deer to gather in big groups.
To a cougar, a congregation of deer is akin to a well-stocked pantry.
Which means that cougar hunters, if they can't find a fresh cougar track, can instead hang around a herd of deer and have a decent chance of seeing a cougar.
To put it simply, a cougar hunter is more likely to see a cougar, and thus more likely to kill a cougar, when the weather's wintry.
andquot;The harvest of mountain lions is cyclical it goes up and it goes down depending on the hunting conditions,andquot; said Don Whittaker, an ODFW biologist who works at the agency's Salem headquarters and compiles cougar-related statistics.
Nork, who said he killed a cougar in January 2006 in Baker County's Sumpter unit, thinks the lack of snow early in 2005 is the main reason hunters killed fewer cougars that year than in the previous three years.
Ryan Torland, a wildlife biologist who works at ODFW's Baker City office, concurs.
andquot;If the winter's real open with not much snow then the deer don't congregate and that makes it pretty tough to bump into a cougar,andquot; Torland said.
Nork, however, contends that the lack of snow makes it more difficult, but hardly impossible, to hunt cougars.
In 2005 he killed two mountain lions, the yearly limit for a sport hunter in Oregon, despite the poor tracking conditions.
In years like 2005, though, hunters might need to burn extra calories to find one of the felines, Nork said.
andquot;If you want to do a lot of hiking I think the chances of shooting one are pretty high,andquot; he said. andquot;If you don't want to get out there and walk, you're probably not going to find a cougar.andquot; Nork thinks the cougar population, at least in Baker County, is growing.
Hunting statistics lend credence to his theory.
During the first 10 months of this year, sport hunters killed 21 cougars in Baker County, Torland said.
That's two more cougars than hunters shot during the same period in 2005 a considerably smaller difference than for the Blue Mountains zone as a whole, or for the entire state.
andquot;Harvest by hunters is going to fluctuate despite what the population is doing,andquot; Torland said. andquot;Harvest is an indication of the population, but it's not the only one.andquot; ODFW estimates 5,100 cougars live in Oregon.
The agency, which uses a computer model to predict the population, says the number of cougars in the state has increased from an estimated 3,100 in 1994.
That's the year Oregon voters banned sport hunters from using dogs to track cougars. Prior to 1994 that was the most popular, and most effective, hunting method.
The number of cougars killed by sport hunters plummeted in 1995, the first full year in which dogs were prohibited, but later in the 1990s ODFW encouraged cougar hunting by lengthening the season to 10 months (year-round in parts of Western Oregon), pruning the price of a tag from $51 to $11.50, and allowing hunters to kill two cougars each year east of the Cascades.
Those tactics worked, and hunters have killed more cougars in each of the past seven years (including 2006) than they did in any year before dogs were banned.