Advocates for using dogs to hunt cougars in Oregon continue to push for legislation that would allow counties to choose whether to opt out of a statewide hound-hunting ban.
Supporters of the two bills working their way through a subcommittee in the Oregon Legislature say rural counties that didn't support the Measure 18 ban passed in 1994 should be given an option to protect livestock and people.
While they came up short on two statewide ballots in the mid-1990s, hound-hunting advocates think they could get hounds back in the mix if rural counties were allowed to choose for themselves.
Nine of Oregon's 36 counties voted for Measure 18, which banned the public's use of hounds for cougar and bear hunting, and banned baiting bears during hunting seasons. Those nine counties mostly were urban areas.
"I keep hearing, 'The people have spoken,' " said Duane Dungannon, state secretary for the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association. "Well, it's 18 years later. Let's give them a chance to speak again."
But opposing groups say the bills would do more than overturn hunting methods rejected by Oregon voters as unethical. They say allowing counties to opt out of state laws could have unintended consequences.
"It's a very poor precedent," said Sally Mackler, the Oregon carnivore representative for the group Predator Defense.
"You want to see counties change the drinking age in their counties of how old you need to be to drive?" asked Mackler, who lives in rural Jacksonville. "If you can do it with wildlife, why can't you do it with everything else?"
A similar bill allowing counties to opt out of part or all of Measure 18's restrictions died in the Legislature's 2011 session after passing the House handily in bipartisan fashion, with far more support from rural representatives than urban ones.
The bill never gained a hearing in the Oregon Senate and died a quiet death.
"I hope the Senate's a good backstop for this," Mackler said. "If not, then the governor."
Two bills — House Bill 2624 and House Bill 3395 — are scheduled for a work session Tuesday by the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. The committee has seen various versions of hound-hunting bills come before it since a 1996 failure to overturn Measure 18.
HB 2624 would allow a county exemptions from statutes banning use of dogs to hunt black bears or cougars and banning use of bait to hunt black bears. The exemption would require approval by the counties' voters.
HB 3395 would direct the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to set up a pilot program that would allow the use of dogs to hunt cougars during hunting seasons to reduce cougar conflicts. Under the bill, counties could opt into the program if they can show damage and conflicts with cougars, and that existing programs haven't solved problems there.
State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, is a co-sponsor of both bills and is vice chairman of the committee. He said he expects one of the bills to move out of the committee for consideration by the House.
"I think one or the other will go out, but I don't know which one," Esquivel said. "I haven't decided which one I prefer, but I think it's OK either way. Either one would be better than what we have."
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the statewide cougar population now at 5,850 animals, almost twice the estimated population when Measure 18 was enacted.
At the same time, total cougar deaths in Oregon have risen from 204 in 1994 to 524 in 2012. The sport season is year-round, with the state is broken into zones with specific quotas.
"There's no shortage of cougars being added to the dead pile in Oregon," Mackler said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.