Cougar hunting plan draws protests

SALEM — Wildlife advocates are protesting the state's move to expand a program to hunt cougars to reduce conflicts with livestock, big game, people and pets.

Opponents say it will only lead to more unnecessary hunting and killing of the big cats.

"This kind of indiscriminate killing is the wrong way to go," said Brian Vincent of the advocacy group Big Wildlife.

Wildlife officials have claimed some successes in the state-sponsored three-year-old program in which it has paid for hunting cougars in three management areas. Officials say 101 cougars have been killed since the program began. Now, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is moving to designate four game management areas in northeast and southeast Oregon where cougars will be hunted to aid elk and mule deer populations. Officials say 90 cougars a year would be killed in the new areas.

"We're trying to manage for a healthy population of cougars while at the same time trying to minimize risk and conflict to the public and to meet goals on other game species," said Ron Anglin, head of the department's Wildlife Division.

Cougar numbers have increased since 1994 when Oregon voters approved a law prohibiting sport hunters from using dogs to track cougars — widely considered the most effective way to kill the big cats. The state estimates there are about 6,000 cougars in Oregon, although wildlife activists question those figures and think they're too high.

In a recent report, state wildlife officials said the cougar management plan has led to a decline in conflicts with livestock near Ontario, in Eastern Oregon. It says killing cougars near Heppner is increasing the ratio of calves to cows among elk.

However, wildlife officials said development, plus the mix of public and private lands around Medford, made it difficult to hunt cougars there.

Big Wildlife, the advocacy group, said the state's cougar management program is a failed policy that ought to be halted, not expanded to the four new management areas.

It said the state should try to encourage use of non-lethal means to control Oregon's cougar population. More cougar-proof livestock pens, bringing in pets at night and not leaving out pet food would help avoid conflicts with cougars, it said.

"Instead of having a cougar killing plan, we should have an education plan in place, especially for people who live in cougar country," Vincent said.

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