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Biologists seek to overturn ruling, kill cougars for deer study

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune
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The federal government is heading back to court in an effort to kill as many as 34 cougars next year as part of a $5 million study aimed at revealing why Oregon’s deer and elk herds are declining.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is appealing a federal court ruling that stopped it from funding part of the state-run study of whether nutrition and/or cougar predation are harming deer and elk herds in southwestern and northeastern Oregon.

Federal Magistrate Dennis Hubel in October barred the federal agency from taking part because it failed to properly study the environmental impacts of killing as many as 17 cougars in each of two study areas — one near Roseburg and one near La Grande — as early as 2004.

Federal biologists, however, have asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Hubel’s ruling so the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife can test whether cougars are harming elk herds or simply feeding on animals that likely would not breed anyway.

"They’re just rolling the dice to see if they can get a sympathetic judge on the Ninth Circuit," said Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which was one of seven groups to sue over the study.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

The notice of intent to appeal was filed in U.S. District Court on Jan. 6, the deadline for filing appeals. No other documents have yet been filed.

ODFW Wildlife Division Administrator Ron Anglin said Monday that his federal counterparts originally had told the ODFW that they were not planning to appeal.

"They told us a half-day before the deadline that they were appealing," Anglin said. "We have no idea what the basis of their appeal is."

The Fish and Wildlife Service could have satisfied Hubel’s concern by conducting an environmental impact statement instead of the smaller environmental assessment done before the study. That assessment concludes that killing the cougars will do no harm to the cougar population.

If the federal government withdrew its $3.8 million grant, the ODFW could legally conduct the study provided no federal money is used. The environmental standards for state-run studies are less stringent than those involving federal agencies.

The study, which was ordered by the 1999 Oregon Legislature but not funded by it, has drawn criticism from across Oregon by people who do not want to see cougars killed for the study.

Brenna Bell, the wildlands center’s staff attorney who worked on the lawsuit, said she is mystified why the Fish and Wildlife Service is pressing an appeal she called "a gamble, at best."

"It seems like their tactic would be to do the will of the taxpayers as well as the court," Bell said. "I’m not sure what they have to gain — except making a lot of people really mad."

The overall study, which began last year, calls for gathering two years’ worth of base data before determining whether or how many cougars will be killed over a two-year period. Agency biologists expected the total would be no more than 34 cougars.

Despite Hubel’s ruling, the ODFW has continued the early parts of the study, Anglin said.

Bell said environmental groups were in negotiation with U.S. attorneys over a settlement for the government to pay the environmental groups’ attorneys fees in the case.

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