COMMENTARY: The price of Oregon's failed cougar management
The year was 1993 and I was a reporter for a newspaper in Pendleton. At the time, my beats were agriculture and sports, but I also dabbled in covering the outdoors — hunting, fishing, the nearby National Forest and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
That was the time when a statewide initiative — Ballot Measure 18 — peaked its head out of its burrow in urban Oregon, with the intention of enacting a statewide ban on the practice of using hounds to pursue mountain lions (cougars), an apex predator in Oregon's natural environment.
As a reporter with sources in the state wildlife agency, I was assigned to cover the November 1994 vote on Measure 18, which would include stories coming from both sides.
The people I spoke with in Eastern Oregon had a much different perspective on the measure than what you heard in coffee shops in Multnomah County, or while you were home watching television commercials that advocated for passage of the measure.
In the urban parts of the state, where interactions with cougars are rare or nonexistent, the public opinion tended to ridicule hounding as an evil act carried out by heartless humans using packs of vicious dogs to chase down, force the animals up trees and ultimately slaughter cute, innocent and frightened cougars.
Because Northwest Oregon — Multnomah County in particular — had (and still has) the largest number of voters, the opinion of rural Oregon didn't stand a chance.
While Measure 18 failed in rural communities, urban Oregon voted yes, allowing emotion and a one-sided narrative to dictate wildlife management, taking the decisions out of the hands of professional wildlife biologists.
When I was covering the lead-up to the vote on Measure 18, I quietly spoke with biologists who confided to me their personal opposition or misgivings to Measure 18.
These professionals knew that prohibiting hounding would take away the best method of controlling the number of cougars, and that it would lead to a rise in the predator population.
They were right.
Back in the early 1990s, the Oregon cougar population was estimated at about 2,000. Today, that number is approximately 6,600.
It's striking to note that the voice of ODFW biologists remained officially silent, citing a mandate prohibiting government employees from expressing an opinion on matters of public policy. In other words, the experts most qualified to forecast the consequences of Measure 18 were forbidden to speak on the subject.
Instead, the only voices in opposition to Measure 18 were those of hunters or hunting organizations, which were maligned in television ads as bloodthirsty rednecks. Meanwhile, the pro-Measure 18 cohort played on people's emotions while describing themselves as humble defenders of wildlife.
In the years that followed passage of Measure 18, new efforts were undertaken to mitigate the surge in cougar population.
For example, the Fish and Wildlife Commission made it easier for deer and elk hunters to purchase over-the-counter cougar tags, hoping chance encounters between hunters and the predator population would provide an equivalent level of control. This has had some small success in stalling or slowing the rise in cougar numbers, but not to the extent of hounding, which remains the single-most efficient means of hunting this animal.
So in the 24 years since passage of Measure 18, deer and elk hunters have witnessed a steady decline in those herds, which they credit in part to an escalating predator population. And that's likely one part of the overall truth. Of course, the decline in deer and elk herds can be attributed to a number of factors — climate, availability of food and water, loss of habitat, as well as predation.
Meanwhile, because of the general decline of deer and elk herds, ODFW offers fewer hunting tags for these species, which translates to fewer dollars for the state wildlife agency's operations. In turn, ODFW increases the cost of hunting licenses and tags, which drives more hunters into retirement. Which means fewer dollars for the state agency, which in turn raises the cost of hunting licenses and tags, which drives more hunters away, which ... well, you get the point.
This, in part, is what happens when wildlife management is handled by people who know nothing about wildlife management.
Fast forward to 2017
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission updated its Cougar Management Plan in October 2017, which revised a plan crafted in 2006. In the latest iteration, the wildlife agency hopes to manage the cougar population "at a level well above that required for a long-term sustainability." With congratulations all around, the agency can declare success right from the start — we already have more cougars than we actually need.
The second and third objectives intend to address conflicts between cougars and their human neighbors. Even the agency admits in its summary of the 2017 plan that conflict between cougars and humans has increased as the cougar population expands into new territories, including areas populated by humans.
The fourth objective seeks a balance between cougars and prey animals.
Here's a link to the 2017 Oregon Cougar Management Plan.
Of course, the provisions of the 2017 Cougar Management Plan were far less necessary in a pre-Measure 18 environment, when mountain lion numbers were already held in check statewide at a sustainable level. In the post-Measure 18 environment, the management is far more complicated, and far more controversial, requiring government funds and staff resources to use hounds to chase down problem cougars.
Fast forward to 2018
Oregon has likely just experienced its first fatal cougar attack on a human. The cause of the woman's death will remain unconfirmed until DNA samples are matched with samples taken at the scene.
On Friday, Sept. 15, government trackers using hounds found a cougar in a tree in the vicinity of the human fatality on Hunchback Ridge. The cougar was shot and killed. As of Monday morning, Sept. 17, nobody was 100 percent sure this was the same cougar that attacked and killed Gresham resident Diana Bober on Hunchback Ridge outside of Zigzag.
Was this the case of a mountain lion that had been startled into an attack? Was this a young, opportunistic cougar? Was this a sick animal that had been weakened by a long, hot, dry summer? Those questions are difficult to answer.
What we do know is this: There are 4,000 more cougars living today in Oregon than there were 24 years ago when Measure 18 was passed. As predator numbers climb, prey species decline — supply and demand. And when that happens, the possibility of human-cougar interactions become more likely.
We can't say definitively that the passage of Measure 18 is directly responsible for Bober's death. That would be conjecture and an irresponsible conclusion.
But it's possible that the cougar population in this state has grown beyond the ecosystem's ability to sustain these numbers. That's shown by decreased survival rates among deer and elk herds, incidents of livestock attacks and more-and-more reports of interactions with humans, even in urban environments.
A reading of the 2017 Cougar Management Plan offers little hope of returning the cougar population to a pre-Measure 18 level.
Even the two candidates running for House District 52 — Republican Jeff Helfrich and Democrat Anna Williams — are reluctant to offer up bold legislative remedies for the failed cougar management in this state.
They, like other Oregon politicians, are careful to avoid suggesting legislation directly aimed at reversing the unwise mandate that came about by passage of Measure 18.
Helfrich — running in his first election for District 52 after being appointed to the unexpired term vacated by Rep. Mark Johnson — says he would support the referral of a new ballot measure aimed at reversing Measure 18. But he wouldn't support outright legislation that overturns the voter-approved measure.
Williams goes a step deeper, opposing any change, saying the use of hounds shouldn't even be a consideration.
Where to from here?
Under the 2017 Cougar Management Plan, Oregonians can expect much of the same that has been witnessed in the last 24 years.
• Deer and elk populations will likely continue their decline, eventually causing a crash in the predator population.
• Conflict with these predators will continue as long as the cougar population spreads out into areas inhabited by humans.
• Government resources — money and staff time — will continue to be spent as a replacement for what hunters with dogs used to do at no government expense.
Welcome to wildlife management by ballot measure.
Steven Brown is publisher of The Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News.