The fur is flying

  Michael Moss’ 64-acre goat ranch sits on the edge of BLM land in southwestern Oregon. It’s “healthy cougar country,” he says, and he’d like it to stay that way. That’s not something you’d expect to hear from most livestock owners, but Moss is a member of Goat Ranchers of Oregon, a group that advocates smart land stewardship. And that stewardship, Moss notes, should include not only deer and elk, but their predators as well.

That’s why Goat Ranchers of Oregon has teamed up with six conservation groups to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. The plaintiffs are concerned that under Oregon’s 2006 cougar management plan, Wildlife Services, under contract with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is killing cougars in certain parts of the state without having adequately studied the environmental impacts of removing the big cats.

According to the cougar management plan, an estimated 5,100 cats roamed the state as of 2003. Oregon Fish and Wildlife wants to maintain a population of at least 3,000. But that plan is drawing fire from individuals and groups who interpret that to mean 2,000 cats will be indiscriminately killed. The agency, however, says that it intends to eliminate only as many cougars as necessary to reduce conflicts with humans and livestock.

The agency’s reasoning is flawed, says Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. He notes that increased complaints about cougar conflicts don’t necessarily mean there are more cougars; rather, they might reflect human encroachment on cat habitat or inaccurate sighting complaints. Fish and Wildlife lacks the data needed for an accurate picture of cougar numbers, he says. Furthermore, he adds, recent studies suggest that over-hunting may compound cougar problems, by taking older, more established cougars and leaving younger, inexperienced cougars, which tend to go for “easy meals” like livestock.

Accurate population estimates for cougars are difficult to get, agrees Ron Anglin, Oregon’s wildlife division administrator. He says the state’s estimate is a conservative one, based on 20 years of research in Oregon and other Western states, using data that includes pregnancy rates, estimated mortality rates, and kitten survival. And, he says, the plan does not set a target number of cougars to be eliminated, but rather a minimum number of cats to be maintained.

While the lawsuit wends its way through the courts, Fish and Wildlife, and Wildlife Services, are continuing to study cougar conflicts in the three target areas as outlined under the cougar management plan. Moss knows how politicizing an issue like this can be, but for him, the lawsuit isn’t about politics: “It’s about sound decision-making, and healthy wildlife populations include predators.”
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