Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oregon lawmaker wants justification for cougar killing

Buckley wants ODFW answers on cougar study
Ashland lawmaker says he'll halt cougar killing if he's not satisfied; funding, science main objections

March 14, 2009
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

Rep. Peter Buckley wants the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to justify, both scientifically and fiscally, its killing of cougars as part of a study on whether thinning predator numbers can reduce human-safety conflicts and livestock damage.

Buckley, D-Ashland, said he will seek a halt to the study and use of the three-year-old Cougar Management Plan if he's not satisfied by ODFW officials' responses during a Monday hearing in Salem.

Opponents of the plan have repeatedly found fault with the science used by ODFW for everything from cougar-population estimates to the study that so far has led to the killing of 21 cougars in Jackson County to test whether their removal reduces complaints about predator activity.

"I'm interested in seeing if we can do a scientific review as soon as possible," Buckley said. "I want to see what's the best way cougars and humans can continue to live in Oregon without so much conflict."

Buckley also has questioned whether implementing the plan is wise in the face of recession-caused budget cuts throughout state government.

The study, which costs about $115,000 a year, is funded from a pool of about $9.6 million collected annually in hunting license and tag fees, according to the ODFW.

"Is it still the best expenditure of the department's time and resources?" Buckley said. "We really need to question expenses across the board."

If he's not satisfied by the ODFW's answers, Buckley said he likely will direct the agency to halt the study in the form of a "budget note."

Budget notes are directives added to agency budgets and they generally are considered as marching orders from the Oregon Legislature if they survive the budgeting process.

"We'll tie it to the budget, depending upon how things go," Buckley said.

The hearing will be before the Natural Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is reviewing the ODFW's $263.6 million budget request for the 2009-11 biennium.

Buckley co-chairs that subcommittee along with Salem Democrat Brian Clem, who has voiced support for the plan.

Ron Anglin, ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator, said he will attend Monday's hearing and will "go through the science of the plan and why we're comfortable with it."

Over the past three winters, the agency has killed 91 cougars in three study areas that include a nearly 1,000-square-mile area of Jackson County, where 21 cougars have been killed for the study.

The trapping and killing of the animals is done largely through a contract with federal Wildlife Services agents.

The program cost $113,165 during the winter of 2006-07, $115,827 in the following winter. Through Feb 25 of this year, the program has led to the killing of 25 cougars statewide — eight in the Jackson County study area — at a cost of $67,001, agency statistics show.

Anglin said agency biologists have yet to analyze the data to determine if reducing cougar numbers has reduced conflicts in the study areas. ODFW is scheduled to report those findings to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in June, Anglin said.

"I think that's what will really be the telling thing and allow us to make a determination on whether this was a good investment," Anglin said.

Conservation groups like the Williams-based Big Wildlife have criticized ODFW over its plan, saying it amounts to indiscriminate cougar-killing that flies against public will.

The plan's hypothesis also differs from a 2006 Washington State University study suggesting cougar populations are not expanding as Oregon's plan concludes.

That study also concludes that backing off hunting — not increasing it — is the best remedy for curbing cougar-human conflicts.

Big Wildlife Program Director Spencer Lennard said he believes legislative review of the plan should lead to changes.

"When you shine light on something that is old-school like this, it can't help but improve things," Lennard said.

Anglin acknowledged that conclusions from various cougar studies result in "competing science" and that he had no answer Friday as to why Oregon's plan differs from the Washington study conclusions.

"Our guys are working on that," Anglin said Friday. "We'll have it for Monday."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail


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