Is It Right to Kill Predators for...Being Predators?
My eight-year-old's letter to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is riddled with spelling errors, and his handwriting isn't exactly a work of art, but his passion for the subject shines through loud and clear: "Dear O,D,F,W, please do not kill any more cougars! You could have traped them and them let them free. They might become exstinkt and that would be sad. :( I'm wrighting this because I want you to stop killing cougars."
He's referring to a story that's been all over the local news here in Eugene. Earlier this month, ODFW trapped and euthanized an adult female cougar after a landowner’s goats and chickens were killed. A week after that, ODFW trapped and euthanized a second "problem cougar," a 40-pound young male.
The cougar situation has stirred up a lively debate among Eugene residents, with plenty taking the point of view my son did: Why were the animals killed? Couldn't they have been set free somewhere else? Is it really our place to kill predators for simply doing what they are born and bred to do?
My initial reaction to the cougar killings was one of dismay. I don't have ethical objections to hunting animals for meat, but ending an animal's life for inconveniencing a landowner seemed like an extreme, even barbaric solution.
That's usually as far as I get with a touchy environmental issue: I form a vague, emotion-driven opinion based on a few articles, and then my mind's pretty much made up. I realize that probably sounds like an incredibly irresponsible thing to admit, but, well, at least I'm being honest. I suspect the vast majority of us do exactly that, based solely on the Sturm und Drang present in most website comment sections.
In this case, I decided to try something different: I called the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to educate myself on the topic.
I ended up speaking with Michelle Dennehy, ODFW's wildlife communications coordinator. The first thing I learned was that ODFW operates under state law when it comes to livestock damage. Oregon Revised Statute 498.012 states, "Nothing in the wildlife laws is intended to prevent any person from taking any wildlife that is causing damage, is a public nuisance or poses a public health risk on land that the person owns or lawfully occupies."
In other words, landowners experiencing land or livestock damage are allowed to kill predators—cougar, bobcat, red fox, bear—without a permit from ODFW, although they're required to report the animal's death afterward.
So why did ODFW step in, in the case of this particular landowner's cougar problem? Partly because the animals were hunting in an area of high public use near residences and a public park.
According to Dennehy, "Whenever we do see a landowner with cougar or bear problems, we always talk about preventive measures, things a landowner can do to protect their livestock and not have problems with predators, but that doesn't change the fact that any landowner has the right to kill a cougar or bear without a permit from us.… In this case we were concerned that if he were to try to shoot the cougar and he just wounded it, we'd have a wounded cougar wandering near a city park, and that's not safe. So that's part of the reason we helped in this situation."
As to why the cougars couldn't have been moved to a different area after they were trapped: "As wildlife managers, we don't relocate animals that damage livestock, because you'd just be moving the problem elsewhere," Denney said. "It's not something we do with any species, and cougars in particular—we don't relocate adult cougars, period. There's also the risk of spreading disease, and our cougar population is actually quite abundant. We have about 5,900 estimated cougars in Oregon. We believe they occupy all available habitat, and if you were to move cougars, you'd be impacting current cougar populations and their territory."
I asked about why one cougar was shot and the other drugged, and Dennehy explained that ODFW had transported the second cougar so that the state wildlife veterinarian could observe him: "The first cougar, which was an adult female, was sedated and then euthanized by gunshot. When we euthanize animals we follow the standards of the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia. For the second young cougar, we're often able to place a cougar kitten in captivity. Our veterinarian works with the zoo to get cougar kittens placed, and we've had a lot of success. We held this cougar to evaluate him and see if maybe he could be a good candidate for a zoo or other Association of Zoos and Aquariums–accredited facility, and he was not, because he was too accustomed to living in the wild to be a good candidate for a captive environment. In this case we sedated him and drugged him to put him to sleep, but in both cases it was a quick and painless death for the animal."
Finally, we discussed Oregon's overall cougar population and ODFW's efforts to keep it in balance through hunting regulations and its own active management efforts.
"In some parts of the state we're actually trying to reduce the cougar population," Dennehy said. "This is happening in eastern Oregon because we are seeing that young deer and elk populations are below our management objectives because of cougars, so we're doing some additional hunting of cougars with our staff and agents. We want hunters as much as possible to help with wildlife management by keeping populations in the right balance. We track our cougar populations extremely carefully, and if a hunting quota is reached for a certain state zone, we end the season early."
Oregon's cougar population has fluctuated dramatically over the years. Settlers had reduced the number of cougars to just 200 at one point, but the cougar was reclassified from a predator to a game animal in 1967, which gave the ODFW management control over the population. In 1994, Measure 18 outlawed the use of dogs for cougar sport hunting, which greatly reduced the number of animals harvested each year. Of 55,000 tags issued in 2013, only 292 cougars were killed by hunters. Notably, 238 were "non-hunter kills," meaning that those were cougars lethally taken because of livestock damage or public safety issues or as part of ODFW's overall wildlife preservation efforts.
In taking the time to learn more about ODFW's cougar management approach here in my hometown, I didn't come away with a brand-new warm and fuzzy feeling about cougars being trapped and killed. I wish those animals could have lived, full stop. But I definitely have a stronger understanding of the overall situation and why ODFW made the decision it did.
More important, I see the value in digging deeper into controversial environmental topics. It's so easy to make snap judgments based on limited information—my son's hand-lettered accusations are virtually indistinct from most of the comments I've seen on this particular issue—and I'm convinced all of our debates would benefit from working harder to see both sides of the story. In the end, our opinions may remain unchanged, but our conversations would surely be more civil.