Oregon's Painted Hills
 

MOUNTAIN LIONS IN THE STATE OF OREGON

In 1994, Oregon voters approved Measure 18, which banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars. Immediately, hunting-related cougar mortalities declined dramatically statewide (22 in 1995).

In response 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 tags were sold in 2009. As a result, sport-hunting related cougar mortalities have increased to record highs despite the ban on using hounds.

SUMMARY: Mountain Lions in the State of Oregon




Mountain Lion Habitat and Population in Oregon

The state of Oregon encompasses 95,996 square miles of land. Of this, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) claim that 71,997 square miles, or 75 percent of the state, is suitable cougar habitat.

However, a review by MLF researchers of a 2001 GAP analysis habitat map could only identify approximately 49,344 square miles or roughly 51 percent of the state as viable cougar habitat. The difference between the two numbers could be significant in accurately determining Oregon's cougar population.

In 1996, two years after the passage of Measure 18, ODFW placed the state's cougar population at approximately 3,000 to 3,300 animals. Ten years later, despite larger than ever mortalities caused by ODFW's Post-Measure 18 sport hunting policies, the Department ramped the population estimate up to 5,000 cougars. They justified this boost by claiming that "Local cougar population densities exceed any documented in North America."(1) As of April, 2011 ODFW's website posted an estimate of more than 5,700 cougars residing in Oregon, and some hound-hunting proponents are even claiming the cougar population in Oregon has reached the 7,000 level.

It is possible that this disturbing trend of ever-increasing cougar population estimates has more to do with justifying policy decisions to kill more cougars than reliable scientific data.

History of Cougar Management in Oregon

In 1843 a bounty program was initiated against cougars in the Oregon Territory. In 1961, this program was discontinued by the State of Oregon for a lack of cougars with only 28 cougar carcasses turned in that year. 6,762 cougars were killed and turned in for a bounty between 1918 (first year records are available) and the end of the program in 1961. At the time it was estimated that Oregon's cougar population had dropped to only 200 animals and were in danger of extirpation.(2)

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.

Photo of hounds.

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.

At this time, sport-hunting in Oregon accounts for approximately 275 cougar mortalities annually. These high cougar mortality numbers do not include the almost equally high "non-hunter"(3) caused cougar mortalities which have also occurred since 2007, and were exceeded only four times (1929, 1930, 1932, and 1937) during Oregon's bounty period when hunters were paid to kill cougars.

These new cougar hunting policies have also resulted in a possible shift in the age and gender dynamics of Oregon's remaining cougar population. According to a 2005 ODFW Cougar Status Report, "As a result of changes to hunting season structure, Oregon has seen a change in characteristics of harvested cougars. Prior to 1994, hunters tended to be more selective for males and tended to take older animals."

Despite ODFW's contention of a healthy and stable cougar population in Oregon, the facts appear to refute this claim.

In addition to ODFW's efforts to negate Measure 18's minimal protections, political actions were immediately undertaken to remove or nullify the citizen-placed ballot measure. They started the following year with a new ballot measure to repeal Measure 18. When that failed, there began a multitude of political and legislative attacks which have continued almost annually.

In 2007, the Oregon legislature successfully passed new legislation in the name of "public safety" which authorized ODFW to increase the annual number of cougars killed by "deputizing" hound-hunters to kill cougars from designated counties. The stated goal of this five-year program is to reduce Oregon's cougar population to population levels prior to Measure 18 (3,000). Between 2007 and 2009, this "administrative removal" program accounted for an additional 645 cougar mortalities.

ODFW does not believe that these draconian efforts to reduce the state's cougar population have been effective because they are seeking renewal of the program for an additional five-year period. ODFW bases this decision on their inability to attain a proposed annual cougar mortality quota of 777 animals. They see the less-than-projected cougar mortality numbers as evidence of population growth. After all, they surmise, if the full 777 batch of cougars isn't being killed, then the supposed "excess" must be adding to the remaining population base and breeding to increase the population exponentially. ODFW refuses to accept that an opposing and more logical hypothesis might instead be true: the decrease in both sport-hunting and non-hunter mortality numbers (despite ODFW's best efforts) reflects a shrinking cougar population — not an increasing population as they surmise.

Oregon's Cougar Management Plan

Oregon's first Cougar Management Plan was developed in 1987 with revisions in 1993, 1998, and 2006. According to a 2008 ODFW report on the status of Oregon's cougars, the 2006 revision established "5 guiding objectives for cougar management in Oregon:

  1. ODFW will manage for a cougar population that is at or above the 1994 level of approximately 3,000 cougars statewide.
  2. ODFW will proactively manage cougar-human conflicts as measured by non-hunting mortalities and ODFW may take management actions to reduce the cougar population.
  3. ODFW will proactively manage cougar-human safety/pet conflicts as measured by human safety/pet complaints and ODFW may take management action to reduce the cougar population.
  4. ODFW will proactively manage cougar-livestock conflicts as measured by non-hunting mortalities and livestock damage complaints and ODFW may take management actions to reduce the cougar population.
  5. ODFW will proactively manage cougar populations in a manner compatible and consistent with management objectives for other game mammals outlined in ODFW management plans.

Within these objectives, a number of zone-specific criteria are established that trigger management actions and are used to monitor progress toward objectives. Proactive management of cougars may include intensive, administrative removal of cougars in targeted areas where zone specific criteria have been met."

As you can see, "proactive management," while sounding responsible and scientific, merely means "reduce the cougar population." ODFW's so-called proactive cougar management plan is in reality a set of directives for the elimination of the species in Oregon. We believe that ODFW's statement of intent to maintain Oregon's cougar population at 1994 levels is a public relations attempt to placate Measure 18 supporters, and is little more than a meaningless slogan to justify the killings.

Their management plan is fundamentally flawed because:

  • First, ODFW's 1994 population estimate of 3,000 cougar is in dispute. A 1997 report by the Predator Defense Institute enumerated numerous deficiencies in the statewide cougar population estimates formulated by ODFW and argued that the agency biased its reporting of cougar sightings and incidents to support claims that the cougar population was growing significantly.
  • Second, ODFW is basing its current actions to aggressively reduce Oregon's cougar population on a crude computer model which does not accurately reflect the complexity of what is happening on the ground.

Arguments Disputing ODFW's Cougar Population Estimate

Between 1918 and 1961 (Oregon's recorded cougar bounty period) 6,762 cougar carcasses were turned in for a bounty. During this 44-year period, the annual cougar mortality numbers only exceeded the 300 level three times, with the all time high of 375 reached in 1937. In fact, the 200 to 300 mortality level was reached only eight times. For almost a third of this 44-year period the annual cougar mortality numbers never even reached 100; and this wasn't just at the end when Oregon's cougar population had basically been wiped out.

A comparable time period of regulated hunting has now passed (1967 to 2009 — the last year of records released by ODFW). During these 43-years, 7,468 cougars (4) were reported killed.

In 2008 neighboring Washington state (which in 1996 passed similar legislation to Measure 18, and whose state wildlife agency followed ODFW's game plan of numerous, cheap cougar hunting tags and long hunt seasons) reported a nearly 40 percent drop in the state's cougar population from five years previous.(5) The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife posits that this drastic decline might be a direct result of current hunting policies which have caused a "shift to harvesting more females and younger animals."

The questions one must ask are these:

  • If killing 6,762 cougars over a 44-year time period once almost wiped out the cougar population in Oregon, why does ODFW believe that killing 7,468 cougars over the past 43 years of regulated cougar hunting hasn't produced similar results?
  • If a nearby state with similar habitat (Washington) has the same cougar hunting restrictions, as well as analogous cougar hunting policies (without the additional administrative removal plan), and that state's policies and actions have resulted in a significant reduction in their cougar population, why does ODFW believe that similar results are not taking place in Oregon?
 
Graph of human-caused cougar mortality in Oregon.

Citations:

  1. APHIS 2008 Oregon Report
  2. extirpate - syn exterminate; 1) to pull up by the roots; root out; 2) to destroy or remove completely; exterminate; extinguish; abolish; 3) the local extinction of a species.
  3. Non-Hunter Harvest numbers include depredation kills; administrative removals; public safety actions.
  4. Includes Non-Hunter Harvest numbers
  5. WDFW 2003 max estimate 4,000 cougars, 2008 max estimate 2,500 cougars


Last Update: February 14, 2012

Who Owns the Wildlife?

12/21/11 GUEST COMMENTARY: John W. Laundré, Cougar Biologist
State University of New York at Oswego

A cougar biologist takes a strong stand on the real value of wildlife. In this important opinion piece, John Laundré considers the public cost of wildlife mismanagement, and the consequences of bureaucratic decisions that fail to consider the public good and the intrinsic value of wild predators.