Reconsider cougar hunting

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board November 11, 2011 08:07 pm

Oregon’s largest hunters group is kicking around the idea of asking voters to overturn the ban on using dogs to hunt cougars.

We share the Oregon Hunters Association’s (OHA) curiosity on the matter, and we hope voters get that chance.

After 17 years, and significant changes in both Oregon’s cougar population and the species’ effect on big game herds, it’s an appropriate time to give voters a chance to reconsider.

The OHA decided recently to spend $25,000 to look into mounting a campaign to reverse Measure 18, which prohibits sport hunters from using dogs — previously the most popular and effective method — to track cougars.

Voters approved Measure 18 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent in November 1994.

Two years later voters rejected a measure that would have overturned Measure 18.

Voters, as a general rule, seem to bristle when their decisions are second-guessed — in particular when the second-guessing happens just two years later.

But 18 years — should OHA choose to pursue a measure, it couldn’t get on the ballot until 2012 — is a different matter.

Since Measure 18 passed, Oregon’s cougar population has risen from an estimated 3,100 to about 5,700 now.

The cougar management plan the state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved in 2006 calls for a minimum population of 3,000.

People who oppose allowing hunters to use dogs point out, correctly, that sport hunters kill considerably more cougars each year now than they did before Measure 18.

But that’s hardly a surprise.

The state has catered to dog-less cougar hunters by extending the legal season from several weeks to year-round. The state also slashed the price of a cougar tag from $50 to $11.

Moreover, the increase in the cougar population means it’s more likely that hunters will see one of the big cats.

Yet even with the increase in sport hunters’ success, the cougar population continues to rise, according to ODFW.

Also on the rise is the concern, expressed by groups such as OHA as well as state wildlife biologists, that cougars are paring deer and elk populations in some parts of the state.

To that end, ODFW has employed several tactics — including hiring hunters with dogs, which is allowed in certain situations — to trim cougar concentrations in places where big game herds are struggling.

The net effect of these changes could be that a majority of voters are willing to allow sport hunters limited use of dogs.

We’d rather let sport hunters pay for the privilege than have the state spend money to hire hunters to do the same thing.

It’s difficult to predict how a reversal of Measure 18 would affect cougar populations.

We don’t want a cougar slaughter. But that seems unlikely, as hunters can buy just two tags per year. Besides which, you can’t track cougars — not effectively, anyway — with the family Lab; and trained hounds are in short supply.

In any case, the cougar management plan remains in effect, with its 3,000-animal minimum threshold.

Cougars, we’re confident, will continue to thrive in Oregon whether or not voters overturn Measure 18.