Oregon hunters will be able to bag more cougars next year, following wildlife officials' increase in the number that can be killed statewide.
The changes come as the population of the large cats, also called mountain lions, continues to rise and the animals’ territories encroach on human population centers.
By the 1960s, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the cougar population in the state had fallen to about 200 animals. The reason, said spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy, was bounty hunting: killing animals for financial reward.
Around that time, cougars were reclassified as game. And then in 1994, Oregon voters outlawed hunting with dogs, making it much more difficult to hunt the animals. Now most are killed by hunters going after other game like deer or elk.
“Once the bounty hunting stopped and there was actual regulations about how many cougars you could take and when, the cougar population really rebounded,” Dennehy said.
Now there are more than 6,000 mountain lions in Oregon. The state management plan only requires maintaining half that number.
In areas like the Coast Range Mountains and Oregon's northern Cascades, there has been an uptick in what wildlife officials call “non-hunting mortalities” – situations where cougars are killed because of danger to humans or their pets, damage to livestock or unfortunate run-ins with the fenders of cars.
“That non-hunting mortality is a good measure of conflict,” Dennehy said. “That means conflict is above where we want to see.”
Additionally, in some parts of the state cougar predation has had a negative effect on wild game populations, like elk, mule deer and black-tailed deer.
As cougars have filled the available habitat in the state, their rate of population growth has naturally begun to slow down. But not enough for wildlife managers in Oregon.
The current statewide cougar-kill quota of 777 was established in 2006. Since then Dennehy said the cougar population has grown by 9 percent. In response the, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted in October to expand the quota to 970.
The 970 is further broken down into six regional quotas. When the number of cougars killed by hunters and non-hunting mortality hits the limit for a specific region, then the hunting season in that area is shut down until the next year.
Although some regional quotas have been met consistently over the past few years, statewide it hasn’t even been close. The number of the cats killed in 2014 was especially low, meeting less than half the quota.
This rases a couple question: - What is the value in increasing the statewide limit if the current quota isn’t being hit? - And why not just redistribute the current regional quotas to raise limits in problem areas?
Dennehy said the growth in cougar numbers warranted a change to the statewide limit.
“The [cougar] population increase is all over the state, not just in… one zone,” she said.
The regional limits have been adjusted as well. For example, the quota for the coast and North Cascades region, where conflicts have been high, will go up 50 percent. But in the Blue Mountains, limit will expand by less than 10 percent.
The cougar hunting season in Oregon is open all year.
Washington and Idaho regulate cougar hunting differently, not going by a yearly maximum. Washington hunting regulations define a range of allowable kills, depending on region. Idaho bases its quotas on the number of female mountain lions killed, but males are less strictly regulated.