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Group seeks injunction barring federal cougar kill

Wildlife advocates say they will sue the federal government today to stop the killing of cougars for a study in the Rogue Valley and two other areas, claiming biologists have not properly examined the effects that killing these predators have on the environment.

The suit, expected to be filed in U.S. District Court, will seek an injunction halting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services' killing of cougars on behalf of the state.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has hired Wildlife Services agents to kill up to 66 cougars in three target areas, including 24 cougars within 996 square miles in Jackson and Josephine counties, to determine whether killing cougars curbs damage and reduces human-safety complaints.

Nine cougars have been killed in the Rogue Valley — including two killed on Sunday — and 59 statewide since 2006 as part of the study, which is outlined in Oregon's two-year-old cougar management plan that has drawn intense criticism from across the country.

A draft of the suit claims that Wildlife Services violated federal law by not fully examining all the potential adverse environmental impacts and alternative actions before accepting the ODFW contract. It also chides the agencies for basing the plan and study on what critics consider poor science that other studies contradict.

It also asks a federal judge to halt the study immediately until all the environmental impacts and alternatives to conducting the study are fully vetted.

Brian Vincent, spokesman for the Williams-based group Big Wildlife, a co-plaintiff in the case, said having Wildlife Services kill cougars to ease livestock losses is tantamount to asking "the state and the federal government to do nanny care" for ranchers.

Ranchers instead should not leave livestock in fields at night where the animals are susceptible to predators, Vincent said.

"In reality, if they just took simple steps and personal responsibility, they'd avoid conflict," Vincent said.

Under the federal Environmental Policy Act, any major federal action that may affect the environment must be studied in the form of an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement, which is larger and broader in scope than the assessment.

At the ODFW's request, Wildlife Services last year conducted an environmental assessment studying its participation in the study verses no participation. It compared the two choices' likely impacts on cougars, nontarget species and threatened species, as well as their social and economic impacts.

Having the so-called "government trapper" assume the role now filled by ODFW employees might actually ease suffering of the targeted cougars and could curb the loss of other species because of the trapper's experience, the assessment suggested.

After a public comment period, Wildlife Services ruled its participation created no significant environmental impact.

Dave Williams, Wildlife Services' Oregon director, defended the EA as adequate.

"When we thoroughly completed our EA, the information, data and scope of the process indicated it didn't warrant an EIS," Williams said.

Vincent called the cougar plan "bogus." He said the numbers of targeted cougars and the plan's potential impacts on other species cry out for an EIS under federal law.

Moreover, activists point to a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2006 that they say suggests the ODFW's study is flawed and should not continue.

In that study, researchers in northeast Washington concluded that cougar populations in the Pacific Northwest are actually declining due in part to increased human intrusion on cougar habitat and a very young age structure of the cougar population caused by heavy hunting.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.