Statistically speaking, that a cougar killed Portland hiker Diana Bober in the Mount Hood National Forest doesn’t mean the big cats pose a greater threat to people than they did before.
But for many Oregonians this tragic event — the first such attack on record in the state involving a cougar not in captivity — is not about statistics.
The reaction is more visceral, a reaction to the reality that a predator which roams not only Oregon’s wild country but also sometimes its cities is capable of killing a person.
Of course this has been true throughout the state’s history.
But the situation with cougars in Oregon has changed — again, in a statistical sense at least — over the past quarter century.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that the state’s cougar population has grown from about 3,000 animals in 1994 to about 6,600 today. We use 1994 as a starting point for a reason — that’s the year Oregon voters decided to ban cougar hunters from using hounds to track the cats, by far the most effective hunting method.
Since then, ODFW’s computer model projects that cougar numbers have more than doubled even though hunters, thanks to cheaper tags and a year-long season, have actually killed more cougars in many years than they did before the ban on hounds took effect.
Oregon’s cougar management plan, most recently updated in October 2017, lists the 3,000-cougars threshold as a “biological ‘safety net’ to ensure cougar population resiliency.” So long as the estimated population exceeds 3,000, ODFW, according to the plan, “will proactively manage cougar-human safety/pet conflicts.”
ODFW acknowledges in the 2017 plan that such conflicts are likely to become more common, noting that “as cougar numbers increased and the human population expanded into rural and suburban areas, the potential for cougar human/pet conflicts has increased.”
But as Bober’s death shows — she was hiking in a national forest, not in a neighborhood park — the risk to people isn’t geographically limited.
ODFW has tried to reduce the cougar population in specific areas by employing hounds — the agency is exempt from the 1994 voter-approved law in such cases. But the purpose in those instances was to reduce predation on deer and elk herds.
The agency admits in the management plan that relying on sport hunters, who can’t use hounds, to control cougar numbers has been futile, and the agency has been “unable to control cougar populations or attempt to resolve cougar-human conflicts through hunting alone.”
Oregon voters haven’t shown any interest in making a change. In 1996 they rejected a measure that would have overturned the 1994 ban.
But more than two decades later, with the cougar population continuing to rise, we’d like to see the Legislature put the matter back on the ballot.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.