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HISTORY OF LIONS IN OREGON

Oregon still allows trapping on much of its public lands.

Similar to many other states, as European settlers became more abundant, mountain lions declined. Settlers considered mountain lions a danger and competitors for native game, such as deer and elk. Predator control was heavily administered on mountain lions, wolves, and grizzlies bears.

A state bounty was called on mountain lions from 1843 to 1961, drastically reducing the lion population in Oregon almost to the point of extirpation. Mountain lions were classified as a game animal in 1967 and have been heavily hunted over the last 50 years.

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The History of Lions in Oregon

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

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What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Oregon, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.

European Settlement

Cougars are native to all of Oregon and historically have been prevalent and widespread across the landscape there.

Mountain lions are native to Oregon, and as happened in so many other states, when settlers began to arrive, mountain lions began to decline. Settlers considered mountain lions a danger to humans and livestock and also competitors for the native game like deer and elk.

The settlers set up a ferocious predator removal effort of endless trapping and hunting. ‘Wolf meetings’ were a common event in local towns, where the inhabitants would come together to discuss what to do about mountain lions and other predators, which always involved more predator killing.

Fur trade

Fur was the first natural resource to be recognized and exploited in what is now Oregon. Fur were an extremely valuable commodity of international trade as beaver and otter pelts, specifically, were in high demand in Europe and China. One of the objectives of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to find and map wildlife populations and find waterways to access the territories. Because of the great profits that were reported to be made, the first settlements in Oregon were fur trading outposts established by competing fur trading companies.

At first, traders in Oregon acquired furs by bartering with the local Native Americans but as word got out about the rich fur resources available, big fur companies such as Hudson’s Bay Company and American Fur Company began to employ their own professional trappers. It didn’t take long to start depleting fur-bearer populations in Oregon and the entire Northwest and by 1824 some fur companies began to employ a strategy called ‘trapping out’ which meant intentionally eliminating beavers and other fur-bearers from Oregon territory to keep rivals from moving in. By the late 1800’s, the fur trade was essentially played out, fur-bearers depleted and Native Americans more dependent on outside food sources and no longer able to live off the land around which their entire cultures had been based.

Bounty

In 1843 a bounty program was called on cougars in the Oregon Territory. The bounty continued for 44 years and was discontinued in 1961 by the State of Oregon for a lack of cougars - only 28 cougar carcasses were turned in that year. The first year mortality records were available was 1918 and between that year and 1961, a total of 6,762 cougars were killed and turned in for bounty. In 1961 it was estimated that Oregon's cougar population had dropped to only 200 animals and were in danger of extirpation.

In 1843 a bounty program was called on cougars in the Oregon Territory. The bounty continued for 44 years and was discontinued in 1961 by the State of Oregon for a lack of cougars - only 28 cougar carcasses were turned in that year. The first year mortality records were available was 1918 and between that year and 1961, a total of 6,762 cougars were killed and turned in for bounty. In 1961 it was estimated that Oregon's cougar population had dropped to only 200 animals and were in danger of extirpation.

Sport and Recreational Hunting

In 1967 cougars were reclassified as game animals in an effort (according to ODFW) to protect the species from unregulated hunting. During the following 26 years of "regulated" cougar hunting in Oregon the annual hunting mortality numbers steadily increased from 6 in 1967 to a high of 187 in 1992.

In 1994 voters approved Measure 18 which banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars. Since hound-hunting is recognized as the most efficient method to hunt cougars, many proponents of Measure 18 saw it as a way to effectively reduce the number of cougars killed annually by sport hunters. Immediately following Measure 18's passage, sport hunting related cougar mortalities declined dramatically statewide (22 in 1995).

To offset these sport hunting mortality declines, ODFW lengthened the hunting season to year-round in some regions, significantly reduced the cost of a cougar hunting tag for Oregon residents, increased annual hunting quotas, increased the bag limit, and issued an unlimited number of hunting tags - more than 43,000 cougar hunting tags were sold in 2009.

As a result, sport-hunting related cougar mortalities have increased to record highs despite the ban on using hounds.

A recent estimate by ODFW claims the state’s mountain lion population has increased to 6,300 individuals.


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