Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is it time to loose the hounds again?

Three young cougars died for their sins last week in the Sisters Country. Their transgression was coming into residential neighborhoods and attacking domestic animals — dogs and probably some chickens.

When that happens, wildlife authorities don’t have much choice: They can’t look the other way — next thing you know someone’s dog is dead, or something even worse goes down. They can’t just chase them off; cougar are territorial and they’ll just come back — same problem for “relocation.”

So we kill them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That’s a shame. They’re beautiful creatures. Many of us love the idea that they are out there playing out their natural predator-prey drama in the forests of the Sisters Country. For those of us who like our wilderness wild, there’s nothing like the frisson of seeing a cougar print in the woods and being reminded that we’re not always at the top of the food chain. And are we not the invasive species? We moved into their territory, not the other way around.

So what’s the solution? We’re not going to move out and leave the Sisters Country to the cougars, and they can’t become vegetarians or read “No Cougars Allowed” signs put up by your Homeowners Association.

Maybe it’s time to let loose the hounds again. I know, I know — the idea of treeing a cougar with a pack of hounds and then shooting it out of said tree is downright repulsive to some folks. I get that. I also get that the baying of hounds, the thrill of the chase, is an addictive potion that stirs something deep in the soul of some other folks.

Set all that aside for a moment. Would it be better for the cougars if they were regularly hounded? As the law stands now (since the passage of Measure 18 in the mid-1990s) it is illegal to hunt or pursue cougar for sport. Only agents of landowners and law enforcement and wildlife authorities can use hounds to chase cougar.

You can still hunt ’em, but the odds are mighty low without the hounds.

If cougars associated barking dogs with being chased and treed, might they stay away from neighborhoods with barking dogs? If the presence of man means trouble, would they not evade our abodes and pursue their natural prey — mule deer — in less trafficked areas?

Maybe hunting a few could save others from dying en masse like the three killed on McKinney Butte. Or, perhaps you could still ban the kill but allow the pursuit; for many houndsmen, the chase is everything anyway.

Wildlife biologist Steven George says a debate along these lines has been going on ever since bans on hounds pursuing cougar have been in place in places like California and Oregon. Evidence of the effects of pursuit — or the absence thereof — is almost entirely anecdotal, he says.

As far as hunting goes, it’s clear that using hounds “is a very efficient methodology to harvest animals,” George says. It also allows more selectivity in which animals are “taken.”

But does it reduce human/cougar conflicts?

“There is some indication that those animals are a little more wary in those areas where hounds are used to hunt them,” George says.

Indication. Seems like it, but we can't say for sure.

What about the mere pursuit — catch-and-release, if you will? Would that have an impact?

“Potentially,” George says. “There’s no science to back that up.”

George notes that there are efforts virtually every year to overturn Measure 18 and restore some level of cougar hunting with hounds. He also acknowledges that there is strong social resistance to the practice that many see as a cruel form of harassment.

In my view, it shouldn’t be a political debate but a scientific one. If we can demonstrate that pursuit with hounds reduces or prevents human/cougar conflicts, it should be reinstated — for the sake of the cougars more than for the peace of mind of humans living in the wildland interface.

Unfortunately, given budgetary constraints, it seems unlikely that any serious scientific studies will be forthcoming, so the question is likely to be argued out in a political arena with anecdotal evidence. It’s still a discussion worth having.

In the meantime, we can do our part to reduce conflicts. George emphasizes that homeowners should remember what brings cougars into neighborhoods to begin with: They are seeking prey.

Don’t feed the wildlife. It’s not good for the critters and it only brings grief down on the mighty cats that are only doing what comes naturally.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Cougars will continue to need to be killed, since they are overpopulated. The three cats would have found their own habitats if there was any available. But these cats need more than 25 sq miles each for their own territories. Not available. Already spoken for.

    So the cat populations need to be managed. Killing the weakest cats nearest the population centers makes sense. But allowing hounds back makes more sense, but Portland city folks would never let that happen.

    Kinda sad that what Oregon voters did to help the cougars, actually ends up hurting them. So what, if it makes the voters feel good about themselves, who cares what hurts the cougars?

  2. Jim,

    Having lived in a home in Southern California that bordered on mountain lion habitat for a half-dozen years, I have given the issue quite a bit of thought. I wouldn't let my kids play in the yard at dusk or after, and we lost a few large dogs in the neighborhood while we were there.

    California outlawed hunting of mountain lions in 1990, allowing their population to grow unchecked, while at the same time the cats' habitat is being reduced. Since a full-grown male requires as much as 100 square miles of habitat, and since they are very territorial, younger males and weaker females are marginalized, and inevitably engage in domestic predation.

    Hunting (with dogs) is the only effective method of controlling the mountain lion population. Relocation doesn't work, and deterrents only push the problem elsewhere. It comes down to a public opinion vs. public safety issue. The western states should sanction both permitted trophy hunting, as well as culling, to maintain the mountain lion population at sustainable levels. They are apex predators, and have proven to be very resilient and adaptable. Natural biological cycles will no longer adjust their population, so outside intervention is both necessary and prudent.

    All of the avoidance measures endorsed by the DFG simply reduce the frequency of domestic encounters, and hounding the cats simply pushes the problem into someone else's backyard. We must either maintain a healthy population by hunting and monitoring, or accept that there will be loss of stock and pets, along with the occasional (rare) "tragedy" when a person comes out on the short end of an encounter.

  3. How about severe penalties for people that feed the deer that are ultimately what draw the cougars into the urban interface? If we did not have a deer overpopulation problem, we would not have a cougar overpopulation problem.

  4. Exactly!. Love the part you said "That’s a shame. They’re beautiful creatures. Many of us love the idea that they are out there playing out their natural predator-prey drama in the forests of the Sisters Country"

  5. Jim - perhaps another type of hound is in order: