Referring to cougar sightings near playgrounds, school bus stops and under a minivan, the Oregon House narrowly approved a bill Tuesday that would overturn a voter approved ban on hunting the big cats with hound dogs.
The vote came after a spirited discussion that ranged from concerns about environmental balance to the vast difference between Oregon’s urban and rural counties. And there was even one up-close and personal scare story.
“I was stalked by a cougar when I was about 8,” recounted Rep. Caddy McKeown, of Coos Bay, one of a group of Democrats who joined every House Republican to give the bill the needed supermajority to pass.
House Bill 2624 would allow individual counties to opt out of the statewide ban on the use of dogs to hunt cougars if voters approve. A county commission could put the issue on the ballot, or it could get on by an initiative petition drive.
If approved, hunters in that county could again use dogs to track and tree cougars — a practice considered the most reliable for bagging cats but outlawed in 1994 by a statewide vote. The bill, approved 40-19, heads to the Senate. It had to get 40 votes — a three-fifths majority — because it changes a criminal sanction approved by voters.
“You should be able to do business the way you want to do business in your county,” said Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who helped spearhead the bill through committee and onto the House floor. She said residents of some counties have become frightened by cougar encounters, and want the ability to hunt them with hounds.
“Please allow those of us in rural Oregon to address this issue the way we would like to,” Sprenger said.
Opponents said worries about public safety are overblown. They pointed to statistics that show the number of cougar sightings and complaints on the decrease, despite a hefty increase in their population. According to state estimates, the number of cougars in Oregon has gone from 3,000 to nearly 6,000 over the past two decades.
The law allows residents to kill cougars if they pose an immediate threat. And it gives the state leeway to hire hunters with hounds to dispatch cougars that have ventured too close to population centers.
“We’re not talking about keeping communities safe. We’re not talking about keeping children safe,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland. “We’re talking about sport hunting of cougars with dogs.”
Debate over cougars has raged on and off in Oregon ever since the 1994 vote. An attempt in 1996 to overturn the ban was soundly rejected. In recent years, House lawmakers have voted three different times to change the law, only to see their efforts stymied in the Senate.
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, a lifelong deer hunter, has been among those pushing for a change in cougar hunting policy.
“This is really about game management and deer population,” Clem said. The increase in cougars threatens deer and elk herds, which in turn hurts the sport of hunting in Oregon, he said.
“They need to eat something,” Clem said. “Fortunately it hasn’t been human beings; it’s been deer.”
Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, said voters deemed the practice of using dogs to hunt cougars as inhumane, regardless of county borders.
“I was not elected to override the voice of the voters,” Reardon said. Allowing some counties to opt out “is an exercise in unnecessary and high-handed legislation.”
Rep. David Gomberg, a coastal Democrat, said hunters go after the bigger cougars because “they make the best trophies,” and returning to the use of dogs would only upset the “delicate balance” that now exists.
That drew a response from Sprenger, who said she gets frequent calls and emails from people who have had close encounters with cats.
“Something is out of balance,” she said, “when a mom in Mill City walks out of her front door to get in the minivan and goes back in the house because a cougar is under her minivan.”