Will Oregon hound cougars to death?
By Camilla Mortensen
'It's so shameful, so outrageous that when they know the difference they use these numbers to scare people.' – Brooks Fahy, Predator Defense
For not much more than the price of a couple of six-packs, Oregon hunters can carry a tag that lets them shoot a cougar if they happen to come upon one while out stalking big game. It used to cost $50 to hunt a cougar, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) dropped the price to $10 and added the cougar tag to the popular hunting "SportsPac."
And thanks to a bill recently signed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, if hunters are "selected, trained and supervised" by the ODFW, they can be deputized as agents of the ODFW and hunt cougars using dogs. Critics say this could effectively overturn Measure 18, which ended the hounding of cougars in Oregon in 1994.
Local predator advocate Brooks Fahy has a big problem with the new law and with the way cougars have been managed in Oregon. Hunting with hounds, despite the efforts of the powerful hunting lobby, is not a solution to cougar management, he says, and the dangers of cougars to humans are greatly exaggerated.
Scientists divide cats (Felidae) into two groups: Panthera, or the roaring cats such as lions and tigers, and Felis, or the purring cats. The cougar is the largest of the purring cats.
The big cat felis concolor that is known as a cougar in Oregon is found throughout North America in a variety of different subspecies and called by many names. It goes by the name mountain lion in the Pacific Northwest and puma across the nation. The same predator is dubbed catamount (for cat of the mountains) in the Northeast and painter east of the Mississippi. Known as the panther in Florida, it is an endangered species in that state.
Oregon's subspecies is called felis concolor oregonensis, though at least two other subspecies live in southern Oregon.
The SportsPac, which is a combination hunting and angling deal for licenses and tags, has been quite successful in allowing hunters to trophy hunt Oregon's cougars. Record numbers of cougars have been shot by hunters in the past several years, according to ODFW's website. ODFW sold almost 39,000 cougar hunting tags last year.
ODFW estimates there are about 5,000 cougars in Oregon. In 2006 442 cougars were killed in this state. "Hunter kill" accounts for 284 deaths and "damage kill," which refers to killing in response to cougar attacks on livestock, accounts for 103 deaths; 25 cougars were killed for "human safety." The human safety kill is in response to perceived threats to humans and/or pets. If "cougar or cougar sign has been observed in close proximity" to pets or populated areas, that is cause for a human safety complaint, according to Michelle Dennehy of ODFW. Thirty cougars were killed through poaching and car accidents or simply found dead.
ODFW received 446 cougar complaints in 2006. In 1999 ODFW recorded one of the highest years with 1,072 calls. There has never been a report of a cougar-related death in Oregon.
Mike Green of Brownsville disputes that statistic. In a 7-15 letter to the Register-Guard, he writes, "I would suggest that there have been a lot of humans that disappeared in the wilderness, never to be seen again. Cougars always hide their prey after killing it."
For predator advocate Brooks Fahy, such anti-cougar hype is "ridiculous," and the numbers of cougars killed are too high. In fact, he says, "I would love to see a complete moratorium on the hunting of cougars."
Brooks Fahy has been working to save cougars and other native predators in Oregon for almost 20 years. In 1990 he started Cascade Wildlife Rescue, which rescued and rehabilitated bears, bobcats, cougars, coyotes and foxes. Through the rescue, Fahy worked hands-on to save predators from injury and death.
The rescue closed its doors in 1995 in order to become Predator Defense and focus energy on advocating for cougars, coyotes, bears and other predators. "It was disheartening," said Fahy, "saving an animal to release it to be shot by a hunter."
Predators were also being killed by leg hold traps, poisons, snares and aerial gunning. Fahy decided the group needed to focus on legislation.
Predator Defense has been instrumental in ending the aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska (a practice that recently restarted) and calling attention to the poisons left out for predators that instead kill family pets and even sicken people.
Fahy still goes out on predator calls any time of day or night. His passion for protecting predators is palpable. If anyone could save Oregon's cougars on energy and excitement alone, it would be Brooks Fahy.
Fahy recently appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Oregon Field Guide" discussing the cougar in Oregon. Back during his rescue days, Fahy says, Disney producers "for about a year were trying to turn me into a nature celebrity type." And with an excitement about predators that rivals the now-deceased Crocodile Hunter's glee over reptiles, it's easy to see why. He's Oregon's own Predator Man.
In 1994 Fahy's group campaigned for the passage of the controversial Measure 18 that ended the hunting of cougars and bears with hounds as well as hunting bears with bait. Oregon voters passed the bill only four years after voters in California voted to permanently ban all sport hunting of cougars there.
California actually hasn't had sport hunting of cougars for over 30 years. In 1972 then-governor Ronald Reagan signed a five-year ban on the sport hunting of cougars. This ban was extended twice, and then legal battles prevented hunts until California voters permanently put an end to the trophy hunts.
Oregon's measure didn't stop all sport hunting of cougars, nor did it stop hound hunting. In this state, hunting bobcats and other predators with hounds remained legal.
Ballot Measure 34 in 1996 attempted to reinstate hunting cougars with hounds. Oregonians voted it down. In fact, in every legislative year since Measure 18 was enacted, attempts have been made to overturn or weaken the measure. None have been successful until now.
In 2005 ODFW developed a "cougar management plan" that, according to wildlife ecologist Rick Hopkins, did not rely on the "best available science." Hopkins wrote in his comments on the plan that it "focused almost entirely on the reduction of cougars to reduce 'perceived' conflicts with humans."
HB 2971, signed into law on June 27 of this year by Kulongoski, repealed the protections created by Measure 18. Cougars and bears can now once again be hunted with hounds in Oregon by agents of the ODFW. Who those agents will be is unclear.
The governor signed the bill the same afternoon Fahy and Hopkins met with the governor's natural resources policy director Mike Carrier to try to persuade the governor to use his veto power on the bill. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who was opposed to the bill, also attended the meeting.
EW called Kulongoski's office to ask why the governor would sign legislation into law that's contrary to two state-wide votes. The governor's office did not respond.
According to Dennehy of the ODFW, it was the Oregon Hunters Association (OHA) that was behind the legislation. She says HB 2971 "was not ODFW's bill."
"This isn't about hunting. This is about the ODFW removing problem cougars," says Duane Dungannon of the OHA.
Hunting with Hounds
Hunting with hounds is a centuries old tradition in the U.S. and abroad. Many popular breeds, such as beagles, bassets and coonhounds of all sorts, were originally bred as hunting dogs. Unlike retrievers and pointers, known as "gun dogs" which retrieve and flush prey, hounds track prey through scent, either in the air or on the ground.
When cougar tags were $50, "the average Joe didn't buy one on the chance he'd run into a cougar" says Dungannon of Oregon Hunters. But now at $10 you can buy a tag, and if you happen to see a cougar while out hunting, "you can harvest the animal."
The number of cougars killed (or as the ODFW says "taken") by hunters dropped to 34 in 1994, the year Measure 18 ended hounding. The kills shot back up to over 100 in the late 1990s and to almost 300 in 2006 when the SportsPac was introduced and the tag price lowered. By selling 39,000 tags at $10 a pop, ODFW would reap $390,000 in tag sales and increase a hunter's possibility of being able to kill a cougar.
"The most efficient and selective method of hunting cougars is with trained hounds," say ODFW's Dennehy.
Without hounds, a hunter may never see an actual cougar to shoot at, and cougars are shot based only on chance encounters. With hounds, the hunter is able to track the cougar's scent. Traditionally, hunters would have the hounds on leashes or follow their "bay" – the distinct howl hounds make when on the scent. Hunters often refer to this baying as a kind of music.
Dungannon says one benefit to hound hunting is that cougars associate the fear of being chased by baying hounds with humans and thus are more prone to avoiding human contact.
But these days hunters don't just rely on the baying of the hounds; they use radio tracking collars and GPS locating devices.
Once the dogs have located a cougar, they track and chase it until it is treed. Most photos of cougars feature the cat in a tree; this is not because the cougars live in trees, but because the only time hunters and photographers can capture this elusive animal is when it is treed.
Once a cougar is quietly sitting in the tree, it is fairly easy for most hunters to shoot it down.
Sexing a Cougar
What isn't easy is to assess the gender of the cougar.
As anyone who has ever tried to guess the gender of a housecat knows, divining a cat's gender at a distance is almost impossible. The average hunter is not able to tell the gender of a cougar that is 30 feet up in a tree.
"Females are pregnant or raising their young for 70% of their lives," says Rick Hopkins.
According to Hopkins, if a female that had cougar cubs under six months of age is killed, "the cubs will certainly die." Cubs from six to 12 months of age "have a small percentage of survival." Cubs whose mothers die when the cubs are 12-18 months old will likely survive "but be stressed."
Cougar cubs normally stay with their mothers until they are 16 to 24 months of age. If a mother dies before cubs are ready to go out on their own, cubs don't learn all they need to know about hunting behaviors.
Some researchers speculate that these untrained cubs may actually cause more problems. Hunting in Washington state led to more cougars and cougar complaints, according to an article in Science Magazine.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
If cougars are so elusive that hounds are necessary for their management, then why are they a problem in Oregon?
According to Fahy, they are not a problem at all.
ODFW uses the "urban cougar myth," he says, and "puts forth the idea that cougars get pushed out of their territory and into town."
"Cougars have always been in close proximity to people," he says, but "cougars don't want anything to do with people."
In 2005, UO student Wes Cross said he spotted a cougar in south Eugene. The sighting was never confirmed, but parents picked their children up from school that day rather than letting them walk home.
Fahy says almost all such supposed cougar sightings are false. Ecologist Hopkins agrees. He says he has photos people have sent him of house cats claiming the kitties were cougars.
"I can't even tell them they were particularly big cats either," Hopkins said.
Both Hopkins and Fahy are troubled by the way ODFW verifies cougar sightings. According to them, the sightings are not really verified at all.
Oregon's cougar management plan is "based upon removing conflict with humans" says Hopkins. "If we look at what we call a conflict in Oregon, the majority of them are unsubstantiated."
Fahy points out that the numbers of cougar sightings and complaints go up when media report about cougars. ODFW, he says, encourages this. "It's so shameful, so outrageous that when they know the difference, they use these numbers to scare people."
Avid hunter Teddy Roosevelt wrote, "No American beast has been the subject of so much loose writing or of such wild fables as the cougar."
In all of North America over the last century, there have been about 100 documented cases of cougar attacks. Of those attacks, 18 people have died of their injuries.
In contrast, 26 people died of fatal dog attacks in the United States in 2006 alone. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance system estimates that 219 people die a year in horse-related accidents. Deer — the cougars' primary prey — also cause large numbers of human-related deaths each year, usually when drivers crash into them on roadways.
According to UO journalism professor Debra Merskin, who is a member of Predator Defense's advisory board, cougars are victims of bad press. She points out that television shows such as Animal Planet's The Most Extreme — Predators! give the impression that predators are evil and dangerous and sensationalize violence.
"All the hype? I don't see it on the ground," Fahy says of his own work out in the field with cougars.
Hopkins argues, "I think a rational and reasonable person has to simply conclude (based on empirical evidence and not on arguments instilling fear) that quite clearly cougars represent almost no threat to humans."
When Fahy looks at cougars, he doesn't see the evil the media have attributed to them. He sees an animal "that has so many characteristics we value in ourselves – loyalty and family."
The Hunting Lobby
"Cougars are a success story in Oregon," says the ODFW. They were "nearly extirpated in the 1960s." Extirpation refers to when a species becomes extinct in one specific area, though it may survive elsewhere.
The ODFW sees their job as keeping cougars "at acceptable levels."
The new law allowing the ODFW to deputize agents to hunt cougars with hounds simply clarifies "ambiguous text that was in Measure 18," the agency claims.
The ODFW says they have not yet determined who these agents will be or the process for choosing them.
Dungannon of the Oregon Hunters Association says, "Measure 18 stripped wildlife managers from managing cougars in the state."
Many hunters see themselves as pro-wildlife and pro-habitat and a part of wildlife management. Decreasing numbers of sportsmen are spending increasing amounts of money on habitat for hunting big game, according to a recent article in High Country News. The OHA has engaged in projects like improving habitat and removing invasive plant species throughout the state.
Despite studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that show tourists who come to simply watch wildlife rather than shoot at it spend more on their trips, the hunting lobby has become a powerful presence in state legislatures across the country. In Oregon, the hunters have their own lobbyist, Al Elkins. According to the OHA web page, hunters "have enjoyed a tremendously successful legislative session."
This included the passage of the cougar hunting bill.
Fahy is undaunted by the passage of the bill or by the power of the hunting lobby. The hunters, he says, "make it seem like you are doing wildlife a favor if you kill them."
When it comes to saving cougars and managing wildlife for Oregonians, he says ODFW "needs to represent the true demographic, not just the hunters."
When it comes to the wishes of the voters and the killing of the cougars he loves, Fahy says, "the public has to decide what they will accept or not."
On the Cover
This photo, courtesy of Predator Defense, features the severed heads of 11 cougars killed on federal land in Arizona. The heads were used as a data sample for the Arizona Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife). Oregon has also collected cougar heads for research, and currently hunters must check in the hides, skulls and reproductive organs (including fetuses) of cougars within 10 days of being "taken."