by Lori Cooper, guest opinion
Thursday March 26, 2009, 12:00 PM
While walking recently along a BLM road near my property in the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon, I was thrilled to see cougar tracks in the newly fallen snow. As a hunter, I am grateful that I share local forests with these big cats. They are a top predator species and a key part of the food chain in our forest ecosystems, killing and eating deer, elk, and other prey in a finely tuned relationship that has endured across the ages.
I am also the mother of two young children. I recognize that the children's fast movements as they run and play on our hikes resemble the movements of a cougar's prey. So my husband and I have taught them to be aware that cougars live among us, and if they ever see one, they should not run, keep their eyes on the cougar, raise their arms, and slowly back away from it.
Chances are, we will never see a cougar in the wild. Contrary to what some would have us believe, the woods are not crawling with cougars. These generally shy creatures would rather avoid humans than have a confrontation with us. Despite this well-known fact, the Oregon
Department of Fish & Wildlife has implemented its cougar management plan, which establishes a minimum cougar population of 3,000 cougars. This would be an approximately 40 percent reduction in the ODFW-estimated population of 5,000 cougars that currently live in Oregon.
Reports of cougar sightings have risen in the past several years in southwestern Oregon. This is probably the result of several factors, including the fact that many more people have moved into cougar habitat. I have seen first hand the increasing number of house lights twinkling at night in the view from my porch overlooking the Applegate Valley.
But killing a large percentage of the cougars in a given area will not solve the issue of human-cougar interactions, and may even create a bigger problem. According to scientific studies, wholesale killing of cougars is actually increasing conflicts by removing adult, resident cougars who are more wary of people. This opens up territory to younger, potentially more aggressive cougars.
Instead of funding part of the cougar study with money generated from hunting licenses that I and other hunters purchase, ODFW should focus its resources on techniques that are far more effective in reducing conflicts between cougars and humans, such as wildlife habitat preservation, improved animal husbandry, and comprehensive public education, such as teaching people to avoiding feeding wildlife, bringing companion animals in at night, and sheltering domestic farm and ranch animals, which will help prevent conflicts with the big cats.
And in the event that a cougar is truly threatening a human, state law allows the cougar to be shot, with the requirement that the incident be reported to ODFW or the Oregon State Police immediately.
Besides reducing human-cougar "conflict," another objective of the ODFW study is to determine the effect on elk and deer populations when cougars are killed. It's no secret that cougars kill deer and elk -- it's in their job description, and has been for thousands of years. As a hunter, I view cougars not as competitors for deer and elk, but as an integral part of my hunting experience. A landscape devoid of cougars, but with perhaps a few more deer or elk, is an impoverished landscape. Given the impacts humans have had on deer, elk and cougar habitat in the form of logging, fire exclusion, agriculture and housing developments, surely we hunters can afford to share some big game with cougars, who were here long before we were.
Cougars are a magnificent and natural part of Oregon. Recognizing this, Oregonians have voted twice in the last 14 years to ban hound hunting of cougars. ODFW should be stopped from persecuting cougars in the name of science and a trumped-up public safety issue. The cougar management plan is a misguided and unscientific effort that should be stopped immediately.
Lori Cooper lives in the Applegate Valley, near Jacksonville.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org