Thursday, October 19, 2006

Oregon residents seek help to control cougars

By Damian Mann
Mail Tribune
October 10, 2006

PROSPECT — A frenzy of flies buzz over two lamb carcasses killed last Friday at Robynn Stearns' ranch outside of town.

Nearby, the bones of one of her $600 show lambs poke up through the grass, while the skin of another lamb is all that's left from a kill just a week ago.

Stearns, who has lived on the 164-acre ranch for the past 17 years with her husband, David, calculates she's lost 20 lambs and 10 calves since 2005 to cougars, four in the past month alone.

Pointing to the carcasses of the two kills from last week, she said she's sure it's cougars, noting the crushed trachea and the eating habits of the top predators.

"They rip open the stomach and rip out all the intestines," she said. "They eat the heart and lungs pretty much the first thing."

Based on her own experience, Stearns objects to recent claims by a Sierra Club representative that only $13,000 in damage was caused by cougars in three Southern Oregon counties last year. She calculates her losses of eight calves and 10 market lambs in 2005 alone at $7,600.

Sally Mackler, wildlife chairwoman for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, said the statistics on the amount of damage caused by cougars were compiled by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Complaints from residents throughout the county over cougar-killed livestock prompted Jackson County commissioners last month to sign a $30,000 agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire Wildlife Services agent Cricket Peyton, who will handle complaints about all problem wildlife.

"He's responding to calls all over the place," said Hank Collins, Jackson County's director of health and human services. Residents who are having problems with wildlife can call ODFW at 826-8774.

Unaware of the county's agreement with Wildlife Services, Stearns contacted a cougar hunter on her own. She also purchased night-vision goggles and a night-vision scope and now packs a pistol at her side when she ventures out of her house after sunset.

She has set traps and snares near the two kills in hopes of catching the cougars when they come back to feed. Altogether, not counting her own time, she estimates she's got about $1,500 in expenses to combat the cougar problem.

"I feel so helpless and frustrated," she said. "It's no fun to come out here and keep finding dead animals."

Mackler said Stearns' situation is "unfortunate, it's predictable and it's preventable."

Mackler said Stearns should have used the money she spent to catch the cougar on better protection for the lambs and calves. She suggested 10-foot fencing with a electrified wire at the top to keep cougars at bay.

Mackler said pregnant cows and sheep should be brought in at night.

"If you run livestock in cougar country, you are likely to have conflicts if you are not using good animal husbandry for your animals," she said.

Mackler said Stearns is well within her rights to place traps and bait, or to use certain breeds of dogs against the cougars.

"She has every ability to protect herself and protect her livestock," said Mackler.

Stearns said she is already taking steps to prevent further losses of her animals, despite some regret at the thought of killing a cougar.

"They are beautiful animals. I hate to have to do this," she said. "At some point, it's either him or us."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or local/stories/cougarprobs.htm

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