State wildlife biologists say they will abandon a three-year-old study that failed to show that killing cougars in Jackson County curbs livestock losses and human-safety complaints involving large predators.
The much-maligned study in a 1,000-square-mile target area failed to reach its objectives, largely because government hunters never killed enough cougars to make the study viable, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"The objective was to make a difference in the human/pet-safety issues and we were unable to do what we wanted to do," said Larry Cooper, deputy administrator of the ODFW's Wildlife Division in Salem.
Similar cougar-killing studies in northeastern Oregon did show a correlation between thinning cougar numbers and increased survival rates on elk calves and reduced livestock damage, according to the agency.
Though 24 cougars were killed around much of Jackson County's lowlands over the past three winters, human-safety and pet-loss complaints did not decline as theorized.
"We tested our hypothesis and found we couldn't get there," Cooper said.
ODFW biologists have recommended that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission not renew the study, which was part of the state's Cougar Management Plan and was repeatedly panned by wildlife advocates and questioned by some legislators.
Sally Mackler, wildlife committee chairwoman for the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said she was happy the agency was ending the study and not surprised by the findings.
"Science tells us that randomly killing predators is not a proven method for reducing conflict," said Mackler, of Ruch. "There's a built-in assumption in the management plan that thinning cougars will increase (deer and elk) herds and decrease conflicts, and that's not ever been proven to be the case."
Cooper said state biologists will look at new ways, and potentially new areas of the state, to curb human-safety complaints involving cougars.
Cooper said there was no "short list" of possible locations, but he said Jackson County was "not off the table" for testing the next hypothesis.
"Whatever it is we do, whether it's in Jackson County or some other county, it's going to look different than what we did down there," Cooper said.
ODFW biologists and a Wildlife Services agent hired by the agency could not kill enough cougars for the study, in part because private ownership patterns made it difficult to chase cougars with hounds.
Sport-hunting for cougars or bears with hounds was banned by voters in 1994, but hounds are allowed in killing damage-causing animals as well as for government studies.
The goal was to kill 24 cougars for the study annually, but the most killed in one year was 11 last winter.
Of those killed here, half were female. Half of the cougars were killed after being chased by dogs and the other half were caught in traps or snares, the ODFW's statistics show.
Eight of them were kittens, seven were young "sub-adults" and nine were adults, according to the agency.
During the same time period within the study area, hunters killed 21 cougars while five were killed over human-safety complaints and 16 were killed after damage complaints, ODFW statistics show.
The average age of the female cougars killed for the study was 3.08 years, and the average age of the males was 2.42 years, the study states. The average age of all cougars killed in the area during the study was 2.75 years old.
Spencer Lennard, program director of the Williams-based group Big Wild, said the ODFW should focus on encouraging people to keep their pets inside at night and other methods of curbing their susceptibility to cougar damage instead of killing predators.
"The onus should be on humans," Lennard said. "It's not about killing cougars. It's about changing human behavior."
A parallel study in northeastern Oregon's Beulah Unit over the past two years showed that killing a dozen cougars annually appeared to have helped reduce reports of livestock damage and losses, the agency concluded.
The ODFW has recommended that the commission continue that study one more year.
A study in the Heppner Unit led to the killing of 63 cougars over the past year, and it appears to have had the desired effect of improving survival rates of Rocky Mountain elk calves, according the study's executive summary.
ODFW biologists plan Oct. 2 to ask the commission to add four new target areas to study whether thinning cougar numbers will improve elk and mule deer populations.
The elk studies are proposed for the Ukiah and Wenaha hunting units, and the deer studies are proposed for the Steens Mountain and Warner units.
The overall study to date has cost about $310,500, of which about $92,000 went toward the Jackson County portion. The money came from hunting and angling license fees, according to the agency.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.