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Southern Oregon contingent speaks against cougar bill

SALEM — Led by Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, a large contingent from Southern Oregon turned out Tuesday to oppose legislation authorizing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to employ private citizens to control cougar populations.

Buckley told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that he opposes House Bill 2971 "primarily because it violates Measure 18 and because I do not believe it is necessary."

He said the bill "allows for the indiscriminate removal of animals that have not caused any problems." Buckley proposed an amendment that in effect only allows the use of contract hunters to pursue problem cougars using dogs.

Ballot Measure 18 banning hound hunting for cougars and bears was approved by voters in 1994. Since then populations of the big cats have rebounded. That led to ODFW adopting a controversial cougar management plan in 2006 aimed at controlling their numbers.

However, the agency lacks statutory authority to employ non-ODFW personnel to carry out its mission, Ron Anglin, wildlife administrator, told the committee.

Hiring individuals with special skills would increase the department's effectiveness and efficiency in implementing the agency's management plan, including scientific research, he said.

Department employees are using dogs to reduce cougar populations in three target areas around the state. One of the units identified as having an excess population is the Rogue Unit in Jackson County, where the goal is a take of 24 animals this year.

"However we do this, with sports hunting or with our own personnel, once that goal is reached we stop the hunt," said Anglin.

Most of the witnesses, however, strongly opposed the bill. Many argued it was a thinly-veiled attempt to overturn the ballot measure and allow hunting of cougars and bears using dogs.

"This bill violates the intent and spirit of Measure 18," said Sally Mackler, Jacksonville, wildlife chairwoman of the Rogue Group of the Sierra Club's Oregon chapter.

Michael Ross owns and operates a 64-acre farm in Jacksonville.

"We have not lost an animal (to a cougar) yet," he said. He said the ODFW plan would remove established cougars hunting their natural prey, making way for younger animals looking for easier pickings.

"A vote against this bill is a vote for farmers and ranchers," he said.

Tom Powell, another Jacksonville-area rancher, said common sense practices such as not leaving pet food out and keeping pets in the house at night up would prevent problems, "not the indiscriminate killing of cougars."

Spokesmen for the Oregon Association of Hunters, which requested the bill, endorsed the hiring of agents.

"This bill merely gives ODFW the authority to employ agents, not to expand the hunting of cougars and bears," Al Elkins testified.

The committee took no action.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.