The number of cougars killed in Oregon because of livestock damage and safety concerns for humans and pets has skyrocketed since the 1980s.
The issue came home on Feb. 7 when a cougar resting in a tree on Clay Street in broad daylight was shot by Ashland Police Department and Oregon State Police officers.
The cougar showed no fear of a crowd of adults and kids who had gathered around the area. Pets had been reported missing in the neighborhood, although only squirrel parts were found in the dead cougar's stomach.
In the 1960s, there were only about 200 cougars left in Oregon when the state Legislature reclassified them from predators to game animals, said Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Once placed under the stewardship of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, cougars were managed through regulated hunting seasons and their population rebounded," she said in an e-mail message. "Oregon's population has recovered to an estimated 5,800 as of 2009 and cougars now occupy all available habitats in the state."
That population rebound is the root cause for more cougars being shot because of conflicts with humans, she said.
In 1987, ODFW statistics show 10 cougars were killed because of livestock damage and concerns over human and pet safety.
By 1997, the number killed had reached 102, and in 2007, 179 cougars were killed because of conflicts with humans.
Both the Ashland City Council and state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, are taking steps to try and reduce those conflicts.
The City Council voted on March 3 to have the city educate residents about interfacing with wildlife.
The city included tips from ODFW on how to avoid attracting cougars to homes in the March issue of City Source, its monthly newsletter to residents, said Ashland Management Analyst Ann Seltzer.
The city will continue to use the newsletter as well as its Web site and brochures set out in city buildings to educate the public, she said.
Mayor John Stromberg has invited interested citizens to take part in a community conversation about wildlife in Ashland and how to reduce conflicts between residents and animals. The discussion starts at 7 p.m. on March 18 in the Ashland Public Library.
For his part, Buckley recently introduced a bill in the Oregon Legislature that calls for ODFW to help landowners minimize interactions with cougars and other wildlife.
ODFW would give technical advice on how to install animal-proof garbage containers, motion detectors, fencing and frightening devices. The state agency also would offer help on penning animals at night and using guard animals, and would instruct people to remove livestock carcasses from pastures.
The state has yet to develop a cost estimate for Buckley's bill.
Dennehy said ODFW does not take a position on bills, but it is providing information and is doing an analysis of the wildlife bill.
She said when ODFW receives a call about a cougar, staff discuss safety precautions, legal rights and preventive actions with landowners. Preventive actions include clearing brush, installing lighting or motion detectors, keeping pets and livestock in at night, not feeding wildlife that could attract cougars and using guard animals.
Buckley said he believes the cause of the increasing number of conflicts between humans and cougars is a result of human populations expanding into rural areas. He would like outside scientists to review ODFW's estimate that cougar numbers have increased to more than 5,000 in the state.
In the meantime, Buckley said, "We are expanding into territory that has been the home of cougars. That is the cause of increasing conflict. It seems to indicate the need for the bill I'm proposing. Shouldn't we take common sense steps not to attract cougars?"
Relocation not legal
Buckley said his bill doesn't change state law, which allows people to shoot cougars that show aggressive behavior or a loss of wariness of humans, as evidenced by repeated sightings during the day. People can also kill cougars that behave aggressively or attack pets or livestock.
The state does not allow cougars to be captured and relocated. Injured cougars cannot be rehabilitated and released into the wild. Cougar young are only spared if they can be placed in an educational facility, such as a zoo.
Cougars that have been humanized lose their fear of humans and may attack. Because of their large territories and strong homing instincts, released cougars could return to live near communities, according to ODFW Wildlife Biologist Rick Boatner.
He said if a cougar were released into an area, it would likely be killed by a cougar that has already established the area as territory. Most cougars that enter land that is populated by humans are young animals looking to establish territory.
The cougar shot in Ashland was a young male.
Buckley said the Oregon Cougar Management Plan, adopted in 2006, actually increases conflicts between cougars and humans because it allows cougar hunting. He said older males, which tend to dominate buffer zones between cities and forests, are being killed by hunters.
"Younger males move into the territory. They are less experienced with humans and more aggressive," Buckley said.
Last week, Williams-based Big Wildlife urged the Oregon Legislature to scrap the state's Cougar Management Plan. The conservation group, which opposes the hunting of cougars, said the plan costs $500,000 each year to implement.
The February shooting of the cougar was not Ashland's first experience in dealing with a potentially dangerous animal.
In 2006, a cinnamon-colored black bear was sighted more than two dozen times in neighborhoods. It even entered an Iowa Street apartment.
In response, the city removed garbage cans from Lithia Park, posted warning signs, issued press releases, posted information on its Web site and sent flyers to affected neighborhoods with information on how to avoid attracting bears.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.