By By Don Jepsen
for the Mail Tribune
June 09, 2007
SALEM — The state Senate Friday approved a bill that authorizes the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to employ agents to hound-hunt cougars under a management plan adopted by the agency.
The controversial proposal now goes back to the House for concurrence on Senate amendments, then to the governor's desk. The vote was 20-8, with Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, carrying the proposal on the floor.
In 1994, voters approved an initiative banning the use of radio-collared dogs in hunting cougars and bear. Ballot Measure 18 also outlawed bait pits to lure bears into rifle range. An effort two years later by sport hunters to repeal the ban failed.
Bates conceded the issue is a very emotional one.
"Nothing emphasizes the urban-rural divide as much as the cougar," he told colleagues.
Until 1999, ODFW used private houndsmen when responding to damage complaints and human safety concerns. An attorney general's opinion cast doubt over the use of volunteers by a state agency.
"House Bill 2971 simply clarifies the authority of Fish and Wildlife to appoint trained, qualified agents to assist in the management of wildlife," Bates said.
He said Measure 18 contained exemptions to the hound-hunting ban in cases where wildlife causes damage, pose a public health risk or is deemed a public nuisance.
"The will of the people of Oregon in Ballot Measure 18 was to allow the pursuit of cougars under these conditions," Bates said.
But environmentalists contend the exemptions apply to problem cougars, not population control.
"This is yet another attempt by legislators and ODFW to accommodate trophy hunters," Brian Vincent, a spokesman for Big Wildlife headquartered in Williams, said in a statement.
Bates acknowledged there are serious concerns about the agency's plan to manage cougar populations, but added, "that's an issue for another day."
Two Democrats offered stinging rebukes against the bill.
"Measure 18 was clear — no dogs," Sen. Joanne Verger, D-Coos Bay. "I believe this bill goes against the will and spirit of the voters."
Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, said the measure implements a flawed management plan "while overturning a plan that voters have twice supported at the ballot box. Voters will not be fooled by this bill."
Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, said there are "way too many" cougars in Oregon.
"People say we are encroaching on their habitat," he added, "but the cats are encroaching on us." Whitsett lives about 20 miles east of Klamath Falls.
Passage of the bill was hailed by a spokesman for the Oregon Hunters Association in Medford. Al Elkins said his group worked with ODFW in the drafting of the legislation.
Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.