By MARK FREEMAN
A bill that would allow counties to opt out of an 18-year-old ban on sport-hunting cougars with hounds will get a public hearing Wednesday in Salem after an Oregon Senate committee opted to take up the issue.
When the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee opens the 9 a.m. hearing, it will mark the furthest any bill to repeal portions of Measure 18 has made it through the Legislature since the ban on hound-hunting and bear-baiting was enacted by voters in 1994.
House Bill 2624 would allow a county to opt out of Measure 18’s cougar-hunting ban if voters in that county approve either an initiative petition or a referral to voters by county commissioners.
Earlier versions of the bill included using hounds or bait to hunt bears. Those provisions have since been dropped from the bill that will be debated Wednesday.
A similar House bill reached the Senate committee in 2011, but Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, the Portland Democrat who chaired the committee, let it die without a hearing.
This time, Dingfelder scheduled the hearing as the chair, thus adding the newest layer of debate about predators that has crossed party lines and pitted urban communities against rural ones.
Supporters of the bill have said it gives rural counties relief from problems stemming from what they see are rising cougar populations. They also say 1994’s vote in which nine of Oregon’s 36 counties set cougar management for the entire state was unreasonable.
“This gives the local control that counties want and need,” said Duane Dungannon, state secretary of the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, which has sought repeals of all or parts of Measure 18 since its inception.
Opponents of the bill said it represents an end-around of the will of Oregonians to ban what opponents see as cruel and abhorrent sport-hunting methods.
Scott Beckstead, the senior state director in Oregon for the Humane Society of the United States, said most of the debate for this bill has been “fear-based” and that many experts see Oregon’s link of cougar complaints with livestock or human safety as laughable.
“Frankly, it’s not a bad thing that we’re talking about cougars,” Beckstead said. “We need the best science available and newest data to make a good choice about cougars in Oregon.”
Both groups also claim to have solid science supporting their positions.
The bill passed April 23 out of the House by a vote of 40-19, barely over the required two-thirds majority.
It was referred to the Senate committee May 1.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists will make a presentation to the five-member committee, which then will hear from panels for and against the measure. Testimony from the public will be taken last.
The hearing does not ensure the committee will vote on the bill.
ODFW computer modeling estimates the statewide cougar population now at 5,850 animals, almost twice the estimate when Measure 18 was enacted.
At the same time, total cougar deaths in Oregon have risen from 204 in 1994 to 524 in 2012. The sport season is year-round but the state is broken into zones and with specific quotas.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.