Wildlife hotline could prevent cougar killings

What if, when residents spotted a cougar in Ashland, instead of calling the police, they dialed a community wildlife hotline? And instead of shooting a cougar dead — as police did last month — the wildlife group evacuated the area and threw rocks at the animal to encourage it to leave?

That's a scenario that could soon play out in Ashland, thanks to ideas broached at a town hall-style meeting Mayor John Stromberg held Wednesday night at the Ashland Public Library.

The gathering was yet another demonstration of the controversy police triggered when, at the recommendation of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, they shot and killed a young-adult cougar that had been lounging in a tree at Wingspread Mobile Home Park on Clay Street.

Nearly all of the dozen people at the meeting spoke out against the decision to kill the cougar, but Stromberg reminded them that many residents supported the action the Ashland Police Department took, because they felt the animal could have harmed the adults and children in the neighborhood.

"Isn't the issue here not, what is the absolute best policy to deal with cougars or bears, but, what can you do given the consciousness of people in Ashland?" he said, adding that people who haven't had many experiences in nature might be fearful of wildlife because they don't know what to do in the event of a sighting.

Stromberg said the best solution to the problem might be to sidestep the city government and organize a grassroots group that educates people and responds to wildlife sightings.

"If you insist on having the regulations that you think are right and you force it to an issue, then there's a good chance that a majority of people in this community may vote to shoot the cougar, instead of what you want," he said.

Also, if the matter were to come up for a vote at a City Council meeting, city officials might act to prevent any possible risk to residents, out of fear that the city could be sued in the event of an animal attack, he said.

The idea to create a community wildlife hotline came from City Councilor Carol Voisin, the only other city official present at the meeting.

"I think we have to let people know that there's an alternative (to calling the police), but they have to choose," she said.

Ashland resident Larry Laitner, an animal activist who has led efforts to establish an alternative wildlife policy in the aftermath of the cougar killing, said he would help create the wildlife hotline.

"Give them my phone number," he said.

"I would say first of all that the police are probably not the best entity to deal with the animal, unless it's acting aggressively or it's being threatened or being threatening, and I think Carol's idea is probably the best idea I've heard," Laitner added.

Sally Mackler, wildlife chair of the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said she agreed with the plan to create a community response team to wildlife sightings and said killing cougars often results in an increase in predation problems.

"You are disrupting the social system. You are removing the older animals and the younger animals are moving into those territories, and those are the ones that primarily cause conflict," she said.

Sharon Wendt, who lives in Wingspread and saw the cougar there the morning of Feb. 7, said she thinks the city missed an opportunity to teach all of the nearby children and teens about how to successfully manage wildlife.

"Those children will remember what Ashland did in that moment, but we can change this," she said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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