COUGARS: Complaints trigger system to kill cougars

November 09, 2006 12:00 am

By JAYSON JACOBY

Northeastern Baker County, including the Halfway and Richland areas, is one of 14 regions in Oregon where state wildlife officials might kill cougars to try to reduce conflicts between the big cats and people or livestock, or to protect elk and other big game that cougars like to eat.

So far, though, officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) haven't scheduled any cougar killing in Baker County.

Instead, the agency is concentrating its cougar-control efforts on three other of those 14 areas, none of which is in Baker County.

Two of the three are relatively close, though — the Heppner unit west of Baker County, and the eastern part of the Beulah Unit, just south of Baker County, said Don Whittaker, a biologist at ODFW's headquarters in Salem.

The third area is in Jackson County in Southern Oregon. ODFW wants to kill as many as 66 cougars in the three areas.

Whittaker said ODFW officials picked the Heppner unit because their studies have shown that cougars kill many elk calves in the unit — three of every four dead calves that were part of one survey.

This summer ODFW set seven traps in the Heppner unit, but none caught a cougar, Whittaker said.

Officials removed the traps before the fall hunting seasons started, he said.

Whittaker said ODFW has not put out traps or tried any other methods to kill cougars in the Beulah unit, where officials' main concern isn't cougars eating elk calves, as in the Heppner unit, but rather cougars threatening livestock.

Whittaker said no further work, which could include using dogs to track cougars, a method which sport hunters can't legally use, has been scheduled in either the Beulah or Heppner units.

ODFW gained the authority to pare cougar populations barely half a year ago — in mid-April when the state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a cougar management plan.

Before the commission adopted that plan, ODFW targeted individual cougars only after they had attacked livestock or pets, or roamed close to people or homes.

The new plan, by contrast, allows ODFW to kill cougars in an effort to prevent such conflicts altogether in places where such conflicts are common.

ODFW officials say they prefer to let sport hunters trim cougar populations rather than pay state workers to kill the cats. But in some areas it seems that the sport-hunting option — despite liberal season lengths and cheap tags, both tactics designed to encourage more hunters to pursue cougars — hasn't succeeded.

Before state workers can actually kill cougars, though, certain criteria must be met.

The first is that Oregon's cougar population must remain above 3,000, the number the management plan deems "well above that required for long-term sustainability" of cougars in the state.

ODFW's computer model estimates that 5,100 cougars live in the state now.

With that criteria easily exceeded, state officials are tracking other statistics from each of the state's six cougar-management zones.

Baker County is part of Zone E, Blue Mountains, which has more cougars, an estimated 1,600, than any other zone.

There are four statistical categories:

o Number of cougars killed in each zone because they posed a threat to people, pets or livestock. This category, which is separate from the tally of cougars killed by sport hunters, is known as "non-hunt mortality."

o Number of complaints ODFW receives about cougars that allegedly threaten a person or a pet.

o Number of complaints ODFW receives about cougars that allegedly threaten livestock.

o Total complaints about cougars.

Besides those four categories, ODFW also monitors populations of elk, deer and bighorn sheep. If biologists believe cougar predation is largely responsible for shrinking big game herds — as in the Heppner unit, for example — then ODFW will consider culling cougars in that area.

For each of those four main categories, ODFW's new cougar plan sets a "trigger" number.

If the actual number of events for any category exceeds the trigger for that category in a particular zone, then, according to the plan, ODFW officials can kill cougars in the parts of that zone where problems are prevalent.

In the Blue Mountains zone, for instance, the amount of non-hunt mortality, and the number of complaints based on human or pet safety, and total complaints, have surpassed the trigger numbers for the zone every year since 1995.

The number of complaints for livestock threats has exceeded the trigger number in the Blue Mountains every year except 2004 and 2005.

Three of ODFW's 14 cougar target regions are in the Blue Mountains — Heppner, Northeastern Baker County, and part of Wallowa Valley.

Whittaker said that because ODFW can't afford to work in all 14 of the target areas immediately, officials decided to start in the Heppner and Beulah units, as well as part of Jackson County.

He said officials concluded that they could employ cougar-control tactics, such as setting traps, more easily, cheaply and effectively in those three places than in any of the 11 others.

Nonetheless, Whittaker said ODFW will "continually monitor" cougar complaints and other statistics from all six zones, and decide each year which places to concentrate on.

ODFW's chief concerns in the Halfway and Richland areas are conflicts between cougars and people, pets and livestock, Whittaker said.

In January 2005, for instance, hunters killed five cougars over a span of two weeks near New Bridge, a few miles north of Richland, after several residents saw cougars prowling their properties. A cougar ate at least one domestic cat during that period.

In November 2002, a young, emaciated female cougar jumped onto the porch of a home about two miles north of Halfway. The cat came within a couple feet of a five-year-old boy.

Critics of Oregon's new cougar plan, including members of the Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States, testified during the Fish and Wildlife Commission's April meeting, at which commissioners approved the cougar plan

Critics pointed out that there are no confirmed cases of a cougar attacking or killing a person in Oregon.

They urged the commission to reject the new plan, and instead allow ODFW officials to continue targeting individual cougars that threaten people, pets or livestock.

Opponents of the new plan also have questioned the accuracy of the computer model ODFW uses to estimate cougar populations, and the validity of some of the reports the agency counts as complaints.