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SALEM — Oregon’s troublesome urban/rural divide was on stark display Tuesday at a legislative hearing on whether to relax a ban voters approved nearly 20 years ago on using hounds to hunt down cougars.Ranchers and hunters squared off with animal rights and environmental advocates over how best to manage the big cats whose population has exploded from about 200 in the 1960s to about 6,000 now, according to state estimates.
“They are one of the most stealthy predators there is,” said Bill Hoyt of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, who described witnessing a cougar kill a newborn calf on his southern Oregon ranch.
Hoyt was among those testifying in favor of two cougar-related bills before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. One, House Bill 2624, would exempt counties from the statewide prohibition on using dogs to hunt cougars and black bears, if county voters approve. It also would allow the use of bait to hunt bears, which voters banned in 1994.
Another, House Bill 3395, would require the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to design a pilot program that would allow hunters to use dogs to track down and tree cougars. Counties could opt in.
Opponents called the bills unnecessary because complaints of cougar encounters are down while cougar kills are up, according to state statistics. They said the bills would undo the will of voters, and they questioned the state’s ability to count cougars accurately.
Scott Beckstead, Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States, came armed with data from the state that show a steep decline in the number of cougar complaints, from a high of 1,072 in 1999, to 287 in 2012. Over the same period, the data show, the number of cougars killed by hunters has risen from 157 to 242.
Voters didn’t bar cougar and bear hunting, Beckstead noted. And they allowed the continued use of dogs to hunt problem or dangerous animals, he said.
“These bills go far beyond that,” Beckstead said. “They allow the use of dogs and bait for sport. The voters of Oregon have said they don’t want that.”
In some ways, the hearing was a replay of the arguments and tensions that played out in headlines and campaign ads in 1994, when the ban on hunting bear and cougars with dogs and bait was put on the ballot as a citizen initiative. It passed overwhelmingly, helped along by lopsided votes in Multnomah and other urban counties. Most rural counties voted against it.
An effort to repeal the ban two years later failed on a statewide vote.
On Tuesday, lawmakers and citizens who support the bills talked about close encounters between humans and cougars. Those stories were countered and dismissed by opponents.
Jayne Miller, who heads the preservation-minded Oregon Cougar Action Team, said many complaints of cougar sightings and encounters aren’t documented. “These are ghost stories,” she said. “We cannot base sound science on ghost stories.”
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who is sponsoring the cougar hunting pilot program bill, said she has no doubts that cougars in Oregon are becoming braver and more willing to come into contact with people.
“I hear over and over, no one has been killed by a cougar yet in Oregon,” she said. “Is that what we’re waiting for?”
A clear complaint from many who spoke is that Oregon has different needs in its rural districts than its urban areas, and there’s an overriding sense that urban voters hold sway. They said HB 2624, which allows voters in each county to decide cougar and bear hunting policy, is fairer than a statewide vote.
Frank Hupp, president of the Oregon Hunters Association of Columbia County, took issue with the “voters have spoken” argument.
“The voters who spoke were from the Willamette Valley,” he said. “If you have a ranch in eastern Oregon, you have completely different needs than you do in the Willamette Valley.”
Where the bills head from here is unclear. Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said he would check with other committee members before deciding whether to call for a vote on the bills to send them to the House floor.
But he clearly isn’t comfortable with the threat posed by the increasing number of cougars. “My concern is, if it’s livestock now, it not be children and human beings in the future.”
– Harry Esteve