Leaders of Oregon's largest sport-hunting group believe the upcoming state legislative session provides their best chance in years to reintroduce cougar hunting with dogs, a practice banned by voters 18 years ago.
An Oregon House that is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans — along with a Senate that is controlled by the slimmest of Democratic margins, 16-14 — has Oregon Hunters Association President Fred Craig of Grants Pass believing the legislative climate has rarely been friendlier toward the group's cougar cause.
Two new bills were introduced this week in Salem that would allow at least some hound-hunting of cougars, which was banned by voters in 1993.
House Bill 2337: Creates a pilot program that allows people to hunt cougars with hounds in counties that want to take part.
Senate Bill 474: Would allow hunters to use hounds to kill cougars during the last three months of the year in hunt zones where cougar quotas are not filled.
"It's gone from a position of knowing full well you'd never get it passed to at least having a chance to get it passed," said Craig, who heads an association that sports more than 10,800 members. "That's why you're seeing this effort now."
But conservation activists and veterans of past efforts to repeal all or parts of 1993's Measure 18 hound-hunting ban believe that, at least for now, the political winds haven't shifted that much when it comes to the "C" word — cougars.
"I don't see much difference in the climate than past years," said Jacksonville-area resident Sally Mackler, who is the carnivore representative in Oregon for the Eugene-based group Predator Defense. "I don't anticipate them going anywhere."
When the Legislature convenes Feb. 1 in Salem, representatives will find two bills dropped this week that would allow some form of sport-hunting of cougars with tracking hounds.
Modeled after a similar program in Washington state, House Bill 2337 would create a pilot program that would return dogs to the woods on cougar hunts, but only within counties whose governing bodies request it. That program would sunset in 2020.
Senate Bill 474 would allow hunters to use dogs to pursue cougars only during the final three months of a season and only in hunt zones where cougar quotas had not been met.
Oregon's sport season on cougars divides the state into zones with specific quotas. Since 1995, a zone quota has been reached only three times, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The quota for the East Blue Mountain Zone in Northeast Oregon was reached in 2001 and 2002, while hunters in the smaller Columbia Basin Zone hit the quota in 2002.
Both bills would require ODFW to come up with a program, and it would have to be adopted by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the agency.
ODFW Wildlife Division Administrator Ron Anglin says agency biologists have not yet analyzed the bills, adding it's too early to say whether the ideas will get traction in hearings or die quietly in committee.
"We don't even know how many of them will see the light of day," Anglin says. "We'll play it out."
Craig said he believes his group eventually will endorse both bills, but the Senate bill, he predicts, has less likelihood of reaching the floor for an up-or-down vote.
But the split House, with its dual Republican and Democratic committee cochairs, could mean life for the pilot program outlined in House Bill 2337, Craig said.
"In the House, we're pretty confident that bill will come out of committee, but you can't always be sure," Craig said. "It's all about the numbers."
The House bill is being positioned as a way to reduce cougar-human conflicts and livestock predation in areas where other existing management tools have failed to manage cougars effectively.
If the bill were to be adopted, ODFW would, in the year 2020, provide a summary of how the program aided in the collection of data for its Cougar Management Plan and whether the program would serve as a model for future cougar-management efforts, according to the draft.
Mackler believes that data available out of Washington state — which shows that killing cougars does not reduce conflicts — will trump any perceived vote gains during upcoming legislative debates.
"We need to be managing around the most current available science, and I think that's very much in our favor — if you look at facts instead of politics."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at email@example.com.