Monday, June 05, 2006

Is "Cougar Madness" Leading to Unnecessary Kills?

On Thursday, April 13th, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted to accept the proposed 2006 Cougar Management Plan. The Commission made this decision in spite of receiving comments from the best scientists and experts on cougars in the world, who strongly criticizing the Plan's biological foundation. It is a sad fact that up to two thousand cougars, 40% of the estimated population, will be killed in cold blood for no good reason. The experts' comments repeatedly attacked the ODFW population estimate because of flawed statistical modeling.
That's the Sierra Club's take on an issue that has roiled rural Oregon for months if not years--cougar thinning.

I don't disbelieve the Sierra Club--usually I'm well on their side--but I still take what they print on their website with a grain of salt. Phrases like "in cold blood" don't help, particularly because it makes the unlucky state workers tasked with the job look like murderers, instead of people who usually love wildlife but are in an uncomfortable position. But it's clear that no one's ever really been happy with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's (ODFW) plan to cull the estimated cougar population to what it estimates were 1994 levels. Note the double use of the word "estimate;" that's a key part of Sierra's complaint--how the hell does ODFW know how many cougars there are?

As Oregonians are wont to do, upon hearing complaints ODFW slowed down and took public comments, delayed decisions and made at least a show of due dilligence. It took until April of this year to get a final word, but on the eve of the decision most players were still upset, and yet sure that the plan would be approved (they were right, of course).

It's an odd coalition of detractors: hunters, cattlemen and environmentalists. The hunters can't figure out why the government needs to plot endlessly and spend money to cull a population hunters can do themselves. But it's said the best cougar hunting is done with dogs (which the state will use, based on its plan), and there is a hound hunting ban in effect since 1994. So to a certain extent--and here's where they're joined by the cattlemen--they'd rather the hound ban be repealed, in their eyes solving the problem.

Neither of those groups have a real problem with killing cougar however; to them it's just a question of how. To the enviros, mainstream or otherwise, it's not even been established there are excess number to cull. Whether the estimates by the state (about 5,000 cougar statewide) are correct or not, I agree it's incumbent on the government to provide sound data behind population estimates.

So now the time has come for implementation, and three large areas are piloting the program: Malheur, Morrow and Jackson Counties. The Jackson Tribune had the story this weekend, and while the theme of general opposition (unsurprisingly) continues to prevail, the local authorities are on board:
Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker, a supporter of bringing a Wildlife Services agent back to Jackson County, said Friday that he welcomes this first implementation of the cougar plan.

Walker said he believes the plan is necessary to quell a flurry of damage complaints, livestock and pet losses and fears that Jackson County could draw the dubious distinction of being home to the first human fatality by a cougar in Oregon in more than a century.

"We're ending up with what I think are close calls," Walker said. "I don't want to wait until some kid is killed or some lady feeding her horses is attacked."
The nub of this situation clearly revolves around the strength of the population estimates and the validity of the complaints. Unfortunately, volume of complaints is often a component of estimating population--if there are more complaints, goes the theory, there must be more cougar. But the complaints are rarely checked out, and many of the checked complaints are not borne out--such as this case of Feline Mania from Corvallis' report: "police in Newport responded to a complaint of a cougar stalking children and found a tan house cat."

From my own admittedly brief research on the subject, I tend to side with those who think that the state is responding to squelch complaints rather than make a deliberate analysis of the cougar population and how to manage it. But I'm neither an animal activist, nor a rancher, nor a wildlife manager. Are you? Tell us what you think about the ODFW's plan. If you live somewhere beyond the Portland metro area, where these kinds of stories have statewide interest outside the urban corner, we'd like to hear about it. And a little later today, we'll tell you how you can help get these stories to a larger audience. Stay tuned.