The state of Oregon is back in the business of killing cougars. After a long and contentious public comment process, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission recently approved a management plan for the state's top predator that would allow government-paid hunters to reduce cougar numbers back to 1993 levels. That could ultimately mean the killing of 40 percent of the cougars in the state. Oregon's experience is being played out across the West, as government agencies struggle to reconcile two irreconcilable forces: our love of cougars and our hate of cougars.
Why do we love cougars? The reasons aren't hard to find. They are beautiful. Their power, grace and skill inspire awe and admiration. As top predators, they help to keep things in balance by controlling prey numbers and removing vulnerable individuals.
Why do we hate cougars? The reasons aren't hard to find. They sometimes attack our livestock and our pets. They compete with us, killing the deer and elk that we enjoy killing ourselves. They can threaten vulnerable populations of prey like bighorn sheep. They scare us, because in California and Colorado, though never in Oregon, they have killed human beings.
These passionate feelings have led to political action. In 1994, the voters of Oregon approved a ballot measure banning the hunting of cougars with hounds, and two years later defeated an effort to overturn that ban. Advocates of cougar hunting have never accepted these defeats, and tirelessly portray rising cougar populations as a threat to livestock and to human safety. Now, the issue has become polarized. As the Oregon Cougar Management Plan notes, with considerable understatement, "Oregonians ... have shown a clear desire to be involved in cougar management."
You have to feel sorry for state wildlife managers: Whatever cougar management plan they adopt is certain to infuriate a large segment of the public. In such a situation, the best they can do is to ground their plan firmly in science — specifically, the ecology and population biology of cougars and their prey. Unfortunately, although Oregon's Cougar Management Plan contains much data on these topics, in the end the plan is based not on science, but on public pressure, pure and simple.
The plan's stated goal is to manage the cougar population so that the levels of reported "cougar-human conflicts" and "cougar-livestock conflicts" do not exceed the levels of complaints back in 1994. The message to anti-cougar activists could not be clearer: The more you complain, the more cougars we will kill.
Public complaints about cougars are almost never verified, as the plan acknowledges, but that would make no difference in the state's response.
Why choose 1994 as the baseline? Good question. The answer is that 1994 was when the ban on cougar hunting with hounds took effect — a year that lives in infamy for the hound-hunting community. There is, however, no scientific reason to select the cougar population in that year, estimated at 3,100 cougars statewide, as a biologically appropriate baseline. Besides, the human population of Oregon has increased by more than 16 percent since 1994, and the proportion of homes being built on the scenic edges of wild country has undoubtedly increased even more than that. Keeping complaints at 1994 rates could actually require reducing cougar populations far below their 1993 levels, since there are now so many more opportunities for conflict.
Missing from the Oregon plan is any serious attempt to hold people responsible for their choices. If you choose to build a house deep in the forest, as many Westerners are now doing, is it reasonable to expect the state to avenge your dog if it is eaten by a cougar? How much freedom from risk can we reasonably expect?
In his classic essay "Thinking Like a Mountain," Aldo Leopold wrote about the extermination of wolves in the Southwest, and about the ecological disaster that followed. "We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness... but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run."
That danger may be the overpopulation of deer and the degradation of forests, as happened throughout the Eastern United States following the extermination of cougars. Or the danger may be less tangible. It may be a loss of wildness, of an attitude of appropriate respect for nature. As long as Oregon and other states manage predators based on public complaints rather than science, we will never be required to show that respect, or to learn how to live with nature rather than against it.