Dogs and cougars: A reasonable bill

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board May 03, 2011 04:00 pm

We don’t as a rule applaud lawmakers from overturning the will of the voters.

But we endorse a bill that passed the Oregon House last week even though the legislation, at first glance, might seem to do just that.

House Bill 2337, which passed by a 45-14 vote and now moves to the Senate, would allow hunters, under specific guidelines, to use dogs to track cougars.

Oregon voters decided in 1994 to outlaw that practice. Two years later they rejected a measure that would have reversed the 1994 decision.

HB 2337 is hardly a blatant dismissal of Oregonians’ desires, though.

For one thing, the legislation would expire Jan. 2, 2020, unless it was renewed.

More importantly, though, the bill sets up a series of obstacles that must be overcome before cougar hunters can head into the hills with their baying hounds.

As a first step, the governing board in a county would have to pass a resolution asking to be included in the pilot program overseen by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Before hunters could legally use dogs to pursue cougars in a county, officials in the county would need to show evidence of “cougar conflicts in the categories of human safety, livestock losses, pet depredations or big game population management objectives.”

Moreover, county officials would have to show that “existing cougar management actions or other existing wildlife management tools have not been sufficient to manage cougars in that county.”

Neither of those hurdles is a minor one.

For one thing, hunters are killing more cougars in many parts of the state — including Northeastern Oregon — now, without using dogs, than they were before voters banned hound-hunting in 1994.

That’s due in part to a dramatic increase in the number of cougar hunters, a trend the state encouraged by slashing the price of a hunting tag and allowing hunting year-round.

Despite the rise in the number of cougar hunters, and cougars killed by hunters, Oregon’s population of the big cats continues to grow, from about 3,000 in 1994 to an estimated 6,000 now, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Largely due to concerns that cougars are decimating deer and elk herds in some places, the state has allowed hired hunters to use dogs to track down cougars in three areas, one of them in Eastern Oregon.

HB 2337 would allow individual counties to do the same, except the hunters would pay the state for the privilege rather than the state paying hunters to trim the cougar population.

The legislation is not designed to eliminate cougars — the state’s cougar management plan will remain in effect, with its minimum statewide population of 3,000 cougars.

Nor does HB 2337 override the state’s system of yearly cougar quotas — when hunters kill a certain number of cougars in one of the state’s six zones, the state ends hunting in that zone for the rest of the year.

It’s worth remembering, too, that 15 years have passed since Oregon voters last voiced their opinion about hunters using dogs to pursue cougars.

It’s plausible that many people who voted to ban the practice would today endorse a system by which hunters could employ dogs, but only in specific areas where cougars have caused verifiable problems which were perhaps unforeseen in 1994 and 1996.

A measured, well-regulated approach such as that laid out in HB 2337 is a reasonable strategy.

More reasonable, anyway, than allowing cougar hunters to use dogs nowhere in the state.

Or everywhere.