Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Oregon’s Assumptions on Cougar Hunting Misplaced

By George Wuerthner, 5-02-11

Oregon, like many western states, allows cougar hunting. Part of the justification for hunting is the assumption that killing cougars will reduce livestock losses and increase public safety. There is, however, growing scientific evidence that suggests that sport hunting is more likely to INCREASE cougar predation on livestock and may even increase the likelihood of cougar attacks on humans.

The Oregon legislature’s wants to expand cougar hunting in the state. Under present law, Oregon allows cougars to be killed 365 days of the year. If you kill a cougar, you can get a second license to go kill another. Under these generous hunting seasons and bag limits, cougar kills increased fourfold between 1995 and 2010. For instance, in 2009 almost 500 cougars were killed in Oregon. (By comparison in California where there is no cougar hunting, only 102 cougar were killed in the same year, primarily under permit for livestock depredation).

Now the Oregon legislature is trying to pass legislation allowing hound hunting of cougars—which has been banned twice by public referendum. The Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) supports this change, and has been trying for years to increase cougar kills, arguing that the population has doubled since the original ban on hound hunting. Some cougar biologists question ODFW’s methods for calculating these population estimates. See Dr. Wielgus comments here

Regardless of the actual number of cougars in Oregon, ODFW suggests that a growing cougar population is a threat to public safety (or is the real reason for cougar control to reduce cougar take of elk and deer while using public safety as a Trojan Horse to justify even greater cougar killings?).

Here’s what ODFW is not telling Oregon citizens.


First, a bevy of research shows that hunting skews cougar populations (as well as other predators) towards younger animals which are more likely to attack people and livestock. Hunting exacerbates the likelihood of human conflicts.

The reason is that in unhunted populations, dominant male cougar kill young males. Young males are less skillful hunters and are more “brazen” and bold. Thus the more young males in a population, the more likelihood you will have depredations on livestock and the rare attack on humans. One does not get to be an old male cougar by being an ineffective hunter and/or either brazen or bold. Cougar hunting is more likely to create social chaos by killing the dominant males that control cougar social structure, permitting a greater number of young males to survive.

California is a good control since it is the only state with any significant cougar population where hunting is banned. No sport hunting of cougars has effectively occurred since 1972. The human population of California is 38 million or approximately 10 times the population of Oregon (3.8 million) and California’s human population is more widely dispersed into cougar habitat than Oregon (due to Oregon’s strict land use laws). California also has 17% of the West’s suitable cougar habitat-- more than twice as much cougar habitat as Oregon.

Thus one would expect-- all things being equal-- that California’s much higher human population and greater cougar habitat would lead to much higher number of human conflicts, and livestock depredations than Oregon. But in reality the opposite is true. California has the lowest per capita cougar attacks on human in the West, and a low level of livestock depredations as well.

Comparisons between California and Washington also show the same trends. For 2009, the last year for Washington data, there were 1528 cougar “incidents” in the state Incidents are defined as a livestock depredation, sighting in someone’s yard, etc. Washington has an aggressive hunting season. Washington has an estimated 2000-2,500 cougars.

By comparison in California where there is no cougar hunting, there are an estimated 4000-6000 cougars (as much as three times as many as in Washington) and with six times the human population of Washington, and far more of the state covered with sprawl, yet there were less than 400 incidents a year in recent years--less than a third of the number reported in Washington where cougars are hunted.

Oregon, which has year round cougar hunting, presently kills 3-4 times as many cougars a year as California, yet it has many, many more complaints and livestock depredations. Are Oregon cougars just craftier than their California cousins--and better able to attack livestock than in the Golden State? Or is something else going on here?

Even if cougar hunting were effective at reducing cougar populations that does not mean it will result in fewer conflicts. Dr. Robert Wielgus found that as the cougar population in his Washington study area was declining due to hunting, while complaints and documented conflicts were increasing.


Part of the explanation for this is that sport hunting is ineffective at killing the very cougars most likely to be in conflict--i.e. those living on the fringes of human settlements. Most hunters hunt the larger blocks of public land. They do not hunt people’s backyards. Hound hunters aren’t going to chase cougars through rural neighborhoods or through subdivisions. So even if hunting did reduce cougar populations, it doesn’t necessarily mean it reduces the threat of cougar attacks or conflicts because the cougars living in closest proximity to humans are the ones least likely to be killed by hunting.

Plus good cougar habitat is always filled. If a dominant male cougar controls the territory, he will kill or at least intimidate other young male cougars and keep them away from his territory. If that dominant male territory overlaps with rural neighborhoods, he will reduce conflicts with humans. On the other hand, if that male is killed by hunters, it opens up the territory to young males. And if the young males continue to be killed by hunters, preventing that area from ever being occupied and controlled by older male, then hunting will continuously create conflict by assuring that young males are abundant in that area. The very opposite of what cougar hunting proponents suggest is their goal.


Finally, the public safety threat is greatly exaggerated. It’s much to do about nothing. The likelihood of a cougar attack is extremely small. There have only been 23 fatal cougar attacks in all of North America between 1890 and 2010. That is because cougars as a rule just don’t attack people. --that is even with the social disruption that hunting and predator control creates. That is because cougars as a rule just don’t attack people.


Hunters are a bigger threat to human safety than cougars. Indeed, there are hundreds of people shot every year by hunters and there are more hunting fatalities in a single year than cougars have killed in a hundred years. It could be argued that the ODFW by increasing hunting for cougars has put Oregon citizens at greater risk of death from hunters than from cougars, For instance, in 2007 there were 19 fatalities in North America (NA) from hunting and zero from cougars. In 2006 there were 27 deaths in NA from hunters and zero from cougars. In 2005, there were 41 deaths from hunters, and zero from cougars.
19 fatalities 200 non-fatal
27 fatalities 219 non-fatal
41 fatal 364 non-fatal

If legislators in Oregon were genuinely concerned about public safety they would consider two things. One is that hunting increases the likelihood of cougar attacks on humans and increases livestock depredations since it skews cougar populations towards younger age classes which are more likely to attack people. But again keeping in mind that even with skewed cougar populations, the likelihood of anyone being attacked, much less killed by cougars is exceedingly small.

Statistically, hunters are in fact, a greater threat to public safety than cougars. Personally I am not worried about my personal safety due to hunting, because even the fatalities from hunting are exceedingly small and insignificant. But by comparison, cougar attacks and fatalities are even rarer.

Bio: George Wuerthner is a wildlife biologist, and predator ecologist. He is a former hunting guide and hunts elk and deer.

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