Weakening of cougar hunting ban unlikely

A law change that would allow counties to opt out of an 18-year-old ban on sport-hunting cougars with hounds is all but dead in the Oregon Legislature after it failed to advance out of a Senate committee this week.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee met for the final time Wednesday without holding a work session or a vote on whether to weaken Measure 18's bans on hound-hunting and bear-baiting. The measure was approved by voters in 1994.

House Bill 2624 would allow a county to opt out of Measure 18's cougar-hunting ban if voters in that county approve either an initiative petition or a referral to voters by county commissioners. The bill had made it further through the legislative process than any other such bill since Measure 18 went into law.

"It was a fair fight, they didn't make it and I don't know how many years it'll take for them to get it," said Sally Mackler, the Oregon carnivore representative for Predator Defense and a staunch opponent of the bill.

"You never know what can happen at the end of a session, but let's consider it dead," she said.

The bill was lobbied for heavily by the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, whose lobbyist Al Elkins said Friday that "we knew going in" to a Senate committee hearing last month that committee Chairwoman Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, had no intention of having a committee vote on it.

Dingfelder let a similar bill die in her committee in 2011.

For the debate on the bill to be revived, it would have to surface as an amendment in a current Senate or House bill, "but it doesn't look real good for that now," Elkins said.

Supporters of the bill have said it would give rural counties relief from problems stemming from rising cougar populations. They also point to 1994's vote in which support in nine of Oregon's 36 counties set cougar management for the entire state.

Opponents of the bill said it represents an end-around of the will of Oregonians to ban what opponents see as cruel and abhorrent sport-hunting methods.

The bill passed April 23 out of the House by a vote of 40-19, just over the required two-thirds majority.

It was referred to the Senate committee May 1.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife computer modeling estimates the statewide cougar population now at 5,850 animals, almost twice the estimate when Measure 18 was enacted.

Total cougar deaths in Oregon have risen from 204 in 1994 to 524 in 2012. The sport season is year-round but the state is broken into zones and with specific quotas.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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