Co-Existing with Cougars: Are We the Real Predators?
by Alex TwoSpirit
Jayne Miller is a woman of vision and passion, although having grown up on a 7,000 acre cattle ranch, it may be surprising to some where her adamancies lie. You see, while many have heard tales of ranchers’ frustrations towards feline predators whittling away at their livestock, or the campfire hearsay of cougar encounters in national parks and suburbs, Jayne wants to tell a different story. A story in which these supposedly ferocious cats that want nothing more than to stalk and terrorize our families, our livestock, and our pets is met with the reality that she has experienced her entire life: cougars, like all wildlife, only become a problem when we make them a problem. Drawing from her Native roots and strong desire to dispel these predator misconceptions, Jayne founded Ore-Cat in 2006, a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation intended to preserve Oregon’s cougar and wolf populations while educating the public as to how we can peacefully co-exist with these ancient and endangered creatures.
Currently, Ore-Cat is petitioning to submit License to Protect to the 2013 state legislature assembly. This fledgling bill is intended to counter pending legislation HB 2337, HB 3428, and HB 3326 that all allow for cougars to be publicly hunted with hounds again in counties that request it – a practice voters already banned in 1994. The term “hound hunting” isn’t one that gets dropped very often these days, but there’s a reason why Oregonians (hunters and laymen alike) and all but 17 states have already banned this practice: it’s hard for the masses to understand how the use of 2 to 20 dogs with GPS units strapped to their necks chasing a frightened animal up a tree for it to then be shot at will resembles the traditional skill of hunting at all. Scent training animals to nab you a trophy leaves a bad taste in most people’s mouths – hence the bans. Hound hunters, not surprisingly, want them overturned.
Nevertheless, License to Protect would allow Oregonians a chance to purchase a non-lethal license that protects the life of a cougar or wolf at the cost of a hunting tag, even if these hound hunting bills passed. Funds collected would then be channeled into creating programs to protect the public, predators, and livestock alike. Ore-Cat hopes that these investments would in turn stimulate eco-business, encouraging year-round income from predator wildlife watching from potentially 3.8 million non-hunting Oregonians, and the 1.7 million wildlife watching tourists that our state draws in annually.
In the past, Oregon’s 282,000 hunters may have brought in the most money to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) coffers. But these days, especially when poaching is taking such a large chunk out of those funds, Ore-Cat argues it no longer makes sense to let a niche part of the hunting community dictate predator policy. Jayne asserts that if anything, ODFW needs to be less concerned about finding ways to stem the falsified cougar epidemic through culling and more concerned with handling the very real threat unchecked poaching poses to wildlife populations and licensed hunters. In addition, before ODFW moves forward with any new policies that propagate killing more cougars, Ore-Cat believes they need to report populations accurately instead of the questionable estimates they have been basing “public safety” kill campaigns over the years off of.
“Well I understand how the eco-system works,” you say. “But I sure as hell don’t want cougars on my porch, eyeing my children like some chicken dinner, so maybe we need those campaigns.” Fair enough. If cougars aren’t a problem, why the random news reports of their appearances? Doesn’t this mean there are too many of them, driven to human dwellings for food?
Cougars aren’t normally drawn to populated locations, so when they are, more often than not a) it’s not a normal cougar, or b) …it isn’t a cougar. Wildlife researchers repeatedly affirm that people mistakenly identify other animals as cougars, with reports ranging from 70-85% of the time. Despite Oregon sharing similar statistics, ODFW doesn’t expunge these incorrect sightings from their data, compounding the problem of basing hunts off of false statistics. Terri Irwin, Eugene native, cougar activist, and wife to the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame, attested in 2008 that she frequently followed leads that turned out to be other animals, and encountered an even bigger issue that many people don’t know exists: domesticated cougars. “Cougar cubs are some of the few wildlife that can be taken directly from the wild and domesticated,” Jayne Miller corroborated. They are sold illegally as hound hunting bait, as well as traded as pets and breeding stock in states that allow exotics, and in the black market in those that don’t. But when owners tire of them or the cats get unruly, they get dumped into the wild…except these cougars have no fear of finding food near your house. Similarly, cubs orphaned by poaching are less likely to have learned “safe” hunting grounds if they make it to adult age, increasing the chances that they wander into populated areas.
In the end, cougars are known to manage their own populations, killing cubs and other adults if they feel their 150 mile range territory is infringed on. Think about how many people can spot one cougar in its territory and all believe they saw a different cat! Then think about how hard that makes simply estimating how many we have without extensive legwork. The beauty of our state comes from the wilderness we are still lucky enough to enjoy. Part of that privilege entails living with other predators, and yes, sometimes we’ll cross paths. Yet thirty-six states have lost their cougar populations completely due to misguided management policies. Ours could be next, if we don’t monitor predator hunting very carefully. If we choose not to, eventually we’ll end up in a situation that hunters and wildlife watchers alike may regret.