Rules tougher for volunteer cougar hunters
Facing heavy criticism from wildlife advocates, Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission toughened standards Friday for the volunteer houndsmen the agency plans to sign up, who will use dogs to hunt cougars and black bears.
Critics say allowing the hunters to participate as volunteer "agents," which the Legislature authorized last session, will increase the number of recorded cougar deaths. And that number climbed to 529 in 2007, including 306 cougars killed by sport hunters.
The action also snubs voters who approved Measure 18 in 1994, forbidding the use of dogs and bait in sport hunting of cougars and bears, critics contend.
The volunteer program allows "a large pool of recreational hound hunters to skirt the law," Stephanie Tidwell, executive director of the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, told the commission.
The commission is expected to approve final rules governing the appointment of agents next month. On Friday, the commissioners decided to automatically bar any houndsmen from volunteering who have felony convictions, wildlife violations or violations for animal cruelty, animal abuse or domestic abuse laws.
That's tougher than the staff proposal, which would have allowed participation if a houndsman had a misdemeanor animal cruelty violation or hadn't violated state wildlife laws in the past five years.
"We're not talking about an ordinary hunter," Commissioner Skip Klarquist said. "We're talking about someone representing us."
Before Measure 18, sport hunters could legally use dogs to run the big cats up trees, where they could easily be shot, a practice critics see as cruel and unnecessary. However, the measure allowed the state and landowners to continue using dogs to help kill problem cougars and bears, and contractors and federal agents working on the state's behalf continued to use dogs.
The state also used volunteers to chase down problem animals, even after Measure 18 passed, until legal questions were raised about the practice. The Legislature's action, and the new rules, will allow the agency to use volunteer hunters again. About 20 are expected to be signed on initially.
The agents will help exterminate cougars or bears that pursue livestock or pose a danger to humans or pets, the state says. They'll also help with controversial state plans to cut cougar populations in three target areas totaling 3,000 square miles: one in the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, one in Malheur County in eastern Oregon and one near Heppner in north-central Oregon.
Cougar advocates say the volunteers, less costly than federal wildlife agents, will allow the state to accelerate what they see as scientifically unsound plans to kill more cougars.
State officials estimate that Oregon has 5,100 cougars, and they say 3,000 are enough to keep the population stable.
Commission members didn't address that larger debate Friday. But they warned that scrutiny of the agents will be high, given the controversy over hunting cougar and bear with hounds. They said they expect the agency to use the volunteers sparingly.