posted on January 17, 2005 00:00
Walt Sokolowski started the morning of Sept. 10 as a deer hunter, but he ended it unexpectedly as a cougar hunter.
The Medford man and his hunting companions worked the brush at an Applegate ranch in search of a blacktail buck, but they stumbled upon a young adult cougar chasing a calf.
Armed with a rifle and a cougar tag bought through the state's popular "Sport-Pac" combination of multiple hunting and fishing tags, Sokolowski used them both.
"We looked at each other and thought, boy, we're not going to let that cougar take down that calf," Sokolowski says. "So I shot it."
Sokolowski is part of Oregon's new breed of cougar hunter -- a deer or elk hunter who happens to carry one of more than 34,000 tags that allow him to shoot a cougar if he happens to encounter one.
This incidental killing of cougars by hunters represents one of the major shifts in where, how and which cougars are killed annually in Oregon since the initiative Measure 18 went into effect a decade ago.
Before the measure became wildlife law on Dec. 8, 1994, 95 percent of the cougars shot by sport-hunters had been chased and treed by hounds, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. At the time, the agency offered limited hunting seasons with fewer than 600 tags.
When hound-hunting of cougars became illegal, sport-hunting for them initially crashed from 144 taken in 1994 to 34 in 95, when just 385 Oregonians carried cougar tags.
But state wildlife managers dropped the price of a cougar tag from $50 to $10 and expanded the cougar season to year-round in places such as southwestern Oregon. The agency also started offering tags as part of the popular "Sport-Pac" combination, and the numbers of hunters carrying cougar tags soared.
The result is more cougars are killed by hunters like Sokolowski now than before Measure 18 became law in the woods.
A record 241 cougars were shot by sport-hunters in 2003, and more than 90 percent were shot by deer or elk hunters who encountered a cougar, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics show.
"Hardly anybody can say, 'I'm going to get up this morning and kill a cougar,"' says Mark Vargas, the agency's Rogue watershed wildlife biologist. "Instead, it's 'I'm deer hunting and if I see a cougar, I can legally shoot it."'
While hunters' take of cougars has increased, the type of cougars they kill has changed, according to Richard Green, a researcher at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wildlife Population Lab in Corvallis.
Before Measure 18, houndsmen typically were selective in the cougars they killed, focusing primarily on older males, Green says. By 2002, however, hunters killed more females than males, and the average age of the hunter-killed cougar dropped from 5.1 years old in 1992 to 3.2 years old in 2002.
"We went from a selective harvest to non-selective harvest, and that's where things changed," Green says.
Another major shift in cougar harvest occurred in damage and human-safety situations, thanks in part to post-Measure 18 easing of rules allowing the killing of cougars for human-safety and damage.
Oregon logged 151 damage complaints in 1992, when 17 cougars were killed because of loss of livestock or pets. By 1998, damage kills hovered around 100 and complaints about damage peaked at 943 in 1999.
Also, cougars killed because of human-safety concerns were less than 10 in the years just prior to Measure 18. They peaked at 35 in 1999 and have hovered around two dozen annually since 2000.
"What's happened is exactly what we thought would happen -- there's more cougars, more damage and more human-safety problems," Vargas says.
Despite the rise in cougars killed over what the agency called "real or perceived threats to humans and pets," Oregon has yet to have a person killed by a cougar.
"Just because no one's been attacked doesn't mean there's no human-safety problem," Vargas says.
Sokolowski says he probably would not have killed the cougar Sept. 10 if it was not attacking the calf.
"I figured that if a circumstance like this ever came up, I'd have the right to shoot it," he says.
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