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State plan calls for big increase in cougar hunting

MEDFORD (AP) - A new state plan calls for up to a 45 percent increase in the number of hunter-killed female cougars in Oregon, after a steady increase in reports of cougar-human conflicts throughout the state.

Complaints about the animals have been on the rise since hound-hunting was banned by voters in 1994, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled a draft of the Oregon Cougar Management Plan on Friday.

While it sets a goal for fewer cougars around humans, it calls for no increases in quotas for sport-killed cougars or changes to the year-round hunting season.

Under the plan, agency biologists say they hope to educate people on how to reduce their pet and livestock losses and encourage counties to hire federal Wildlife Services agents to remove damage-causing cougars.

Unlike a similar plan adopted for wolves in Oregon, the draft cougar plan does not ask the Oregon Legislature for any changes to current wildlife laws.

Overall, the draft document represents the most complete look at Oregon's cougar populations ever assembled.

Based on four separate cougar studies scattered throughout Oregon, the draft plan estimated Oregon's cougar population at 5,101 animals in 2003, the latest figures available. The estimate was about 3,000 animals statewide in 1994, the year voters banned hounds for sport-hunting of cougars.

In 1995 - the first year of the hound-hunting ban - 316 hunters with cougar tags killed 35 cougars, down from 144 killed by 358 hunters when hound-hunting was legal the previous year.

The wildlife agency dropped the price of cougar tags in the mid-1990s and the agency sold more than 34,000 tags in 2004, when hunters killed an all-time high of 265 cougars, the draft states.

Kevin Westfall of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association said he believes the draft shows the wildlife agency has "good objectives" for cougar management, but he faulted the draft for failing to outline exactly how to reach those goals.

Westfall said nothing short of restoring hound-hunting of cougars will allow the agency to reach the draft's goals of reducing public safety problems and livestock damage.

But Sally Mackler, wildlife chairwoman of the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the plan's apparent focus on trying to roll the cougar population back to 1994 levels is arbitrary and not based on biology.

"This is not a biological plan," Mackler said. "This is a political plan."

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