The Oregon legislature recently passed a controversial bill that will facilitate the killing of several thousand cougars in the state. In what seems like a throw back to the last century, the state is set to kill more than a third of its cougars.
The new law would permit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to “deputize” hunters so they can use hounds in order to ramp up the killing of cougars (euphemistically called “harvest”). This new law was crafted to circumvent a twice-passed citizen imitative that bans use of hounds for “sport” hunting of cougars. Oregon never outlawed cougar hunting—just the killing of cougars with the aid of hounds. In 2006 the state’s total hunter and “management” kill was 442 animals. However, in the eyes of the ODFW not enough cougars were being killed. Hunting with hounds is more effective, and since ODFW newly adopted cougar plan calls for slaughtering up to 2000 of the secretive animals, the agency wanted a more efficient means of killing the big cats, hence its strong support for the new legislation.
Most people are outraged by the thought of some cretin, whom I will not glorify with the term hunter, following a pack of radio collared hounds to a treed cat, and then blasting the cougar from its perch. The killing of animals like cougars, wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals that are not providing meat on the table is seen as bloodthirty and unnecessary by a growing majority of Americans—including Oregon residents—which is why they have twice banned the practice. Finding little public support for such practices, ODFW tries to hide its real predator persecution motives behind a veneer of public safety concerns by suggesting it has to kill more than a third of the state’s cougar population to reduce public anxiety over potential cougar attacks. Never mind that ODFW has been beating the drums about a “growing” threat from cougars in order to create a public mandate for predator control.
If the department were genuinely interested in reducing human-cougar conflicts it would be arguing against any cougar hunting at all. Most top predators, including cougars, are territorial social animals. Research has demonstrated that it is primarily young, inexperienced animals that are responsible for the majority of human-cougar conflicts and incidences. There is good reason for this, since young animals tend to be inexperienced hunters, they are more likely to attack domestic livestock or even humans. Plus younger animals are more mobile, thus likely to set up a territory in or near human settlements—the kind of marginal habitat that older, more experienced cougars avoid. Thus indiscriminate hunting of cougars (as well as other predators like wolves) will invariably skew the population towards younger age classes. This creates more human/predator conflicts and by happy coincidence sets up a self reinforcing feedback for ever more “control.” Any competent biologist knows about these social interactions, yet we never hear the ODFW explaining to the public how cougar persecution might exacerbate, rather than decrease, risk for human/cougar conflicts.
Furthermore, the threat to human life from cougars is greatly exaggerated. There has never been a single human death as a result of cougar attack in Oregon, and the likelihood of any lethal attacks is extremely small. In the past hundred years in North America there has been about 100 documented attacks on humans, with only 18 fatal. By contrast in 2006 there were 26 fatal attacks on people by dogs alone. And 219 people died as a result of horse-related accidents. A department that was genuinely interested in addressing public concerns would be launching a massive educational campaign to reduce public anxiety. But instead the ODFW has reinforced public apprehension by suggesting that “yes, we had better reduce cougar populations before someone dies.”
California makes a good contrast to Oregon’s approach to cougar management. In California all sport hunting for cougars has been banned since 1972. Though the state has 34 million people and five times the livestock as Oregon, only 120 California cougars are killed each year to deal with public concerns about livestock or human threats.
ODFW suggests that some elk and deer herds are not growing, and may even be declining—and conveniently placing the blame upon the “growing” cougar population. However, they fail to acknowledge that in nearly all circumstances that such ungulate declines are due to degraded habitat quality and/or loss—for instance increased road densities from logging that facilities higher hunter success, changes in vegetation due to fire suppression, competition with domestic livestock for forage, new subdivisions (increasingly built in cougar habitat), and so on. Instead of addressing these issues, the department hides behind the predator scapegoat.
Where predators are reducing ungulate populations, something that they can do on occasion, an intelligent response would be to ask, “what ecological benefit might be the consequence?” In the case of predator induced declines in ungulate numbers, an intelligent department that was professional would point out how vegetative communities benefit from a reduction in heavy exploitation by herbivores, which in turn benefits both plant communities and ungulates in the long term. But ODFW is silent when it comes to good ecological science. Nor does the department talk about other positive ecological effects of predators including the tendency of deer and elk to spread themselves out on the landscape or how they kill different age classes of prey animals from hunters—both of which have significant ecological consequences.
I want to acknowledge that there are many very fine biologists who do work for ODFW as well as other state Fish and Wildlife agencies. I know many of them first hand, and they work hard to promote good ecological care of the land and its wildlife. Many of them are uncomfortable with the increasingly hostile attitudes that their own agencies are displaying towards predators. There are also hunters, such as myself, who are opposed to predator control for a host of ethical and biological reasons. Unfortunately you would never know any countervailing perspective exists amongst the hunting community.
Whether it is Wyoming’s plan to kill wolves as “predators” , a designation that offers no limits on numbers killed or closed season, or Idaho’s goal to reduce wolves by up to 2/3, or Oregon’s proposed cougar slaughter, what we are seeing is a throwback back to the good old days when predators were seen as nothing more than an obstacle to “better” hunting. I predict if hunters are not careful, and don’t start speaking out against predator persecution and the 19th century practices of state wildlife agencies, they will find that a growing number of Americans will just vote to ban all hunting, not just that directed at killing predators.
George Wuerthner is a former Montana hunting guide, a wildlife biologist, and author of 34 books on natural history and environmental issues who still kills (as opposed to harvest), on occasion, elk and deer. He finds the best hunting is where there are dense populations of wolves and cougars since other hunters avoid these areas, convinced predators have discriminated elk and deer herds.