Hunting for the right result

ODFW cougar killing study falls short, raising questions about its motive

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife made the right decision in dropping a controversial cougar study in Southern Oregon, but not before giving itself an unnecessary black eye.

The agency last week ended a study that called for the killing of 72 cougars over a three-year period as a way of testing whether the deaths of the big cats would lead to a reduction in pet and livestock losses and human-safety complaints. The study ended prematurely because government hunters never were able to kill enough cougars to make the study viable, according to Fish and Wildlife officials. While the study called for the killing of 24 cougars a year for three years, hunters were never able to kill more than 11 in a year. In two-plus years, the total was 24. ODFW said because of private land ownership in the 1,000-square-mile study area, the hunters often were unable to use tracking hounds to tree the cougars.

The 24 cougar deaths were the only tangible results from the study, a fact that plays into the hands of cougar advocates and agency critics, who believed all along the study was merely an opportunity to reduce cougar numbers and to push public policy.

We're no cougar huggers, but this whole thing smells. What kind of research went into the proposal, if the end result fell so far short of providing adequate information? Was there any sort of due diligence before the study was launched that suggested the hunters would be able to get triple the number of cats they actually were able to bag? Did it not occur to anyone that the study area was filled with private properties?

Beyond that, like too many government studies, doesn't the answer to this one seem obvious? If you kill cougars, will livestock and pet killings in the area decline and will people who had cougars on their properties feel safer? Yes, that's obvious. Given that, we're not surprised that some saw the real intent of this was to push the Legislature into getting tougher on cougars and allowing more aggressive hunting.

In the end, 24 cougars — including eight kittens — were killed. Many of these animals were not problem cats, but nevertheless became statistics in a study in which the statistics didn't come to matter.

We did not support the 1994 initiative that banned the use of hounds in cougar hunting, because we felt that wildlife management should be left up to the experts, rather than put before the general populace. This study leads us to wonder about use of the word "experts."

Similar ODFW studies in Eastern Oregon showed that killing cougars helped improve the survival rates of Rocky Mountain elk calves. ODFW was so encouraged by that result that it now intends to create four new target areas to see if killing cougars would result in fewer deer deaths. Does anyone doubt what the answer will be?

So when it gets the answer it wants, how long before ODFW pushes for new legislation to thin the cougar population? If it doesn't get the new legislation, it could always launch a statewide study to determine what would happen if cougars were killed everywhere. Or maybe it could save the money and instead use it to hire hunters to go after the cougars identified as threats in populated areas. Just a thought.

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