The recent killing of yet another cougar in Bend represents a tragic and unnecessary death of an animal that was just minding its own business and posed no threat to anyone.
The hype surrounding the killing lacks ecological perspective. Recent research in predator ecology suggests that killing animals like cougars (or wolves, coyotes and bears) only increases conflicts with humans. Though this information is widely known in ecological circles, apparently the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hasn’t read any new science in decades because they continue to foster the myth that indiscriminate killing of predators will reduce conflicts. Here’s what ODFW doesn’t tell you:
First, all predators are social animals. When their social relationships are disrupted by hunting and trapping, it creates “social chaos.” For instance, in a study done in Washington state found that as the cougar population declined due to hunting, the number of reported conflicts went up. There is a good reason for this observation.
In cougar society a dominant male controls the territory overlapping two to five female cougars. The dominant male kills young teenage male cougars that enter its territory. But when hunters kill the dominant male, they unleash a free-for-all of young “teenagers” vying for that territory. You may suddenly have two to four young males occupying the same geographical area as formerly occupied by one older male.
Furthermore, teenage cougars, like human male teenagers, are more reckless, bolder and less skillful hunters. This means they are far more likely to prey on livestock and/or enter the backyard of a house to capture a dog or cat.
A similar disruption of social bonds occurs when a female cougar is killed. Unlike deer or elk that produce young in the spring, female cougars produce a litter of kittens at any time of year. That means a female killed even in the winter months may have dependent kittens. Since cougars are not fully able to hunt on their own until they are 15 to 16 months old, orphaned kittens are also more likely to kill easy prey like livestock or pets.
Cougars also will fill any void if the habitat is good. Killing a cougar on Pilot Butte means that another cougar is likely already moving into the same territory. The new cougar may be less experienced than the cougar killed. In any event, killing does not solve the issue.
The threat posed by cougars is infinitely small. Since 1890 there has only been 24 documented fatal cougar attacks in all of North America! The so-called threat posed by the cougar on Pilot Butte was almost nonexistent. By contrast, every year in the US there are 30 to 40 fatal attacks by domestic dogs, and millions of nonlethal attacks. In other words, the dogs that are regularly taken up the Pilot Butte trails pose a greater threat to people than any cougar, yet most of us do not give the dogs a thought.
A more humane approach to the cougar presence would have been to close the park temporarily and allow the cougar to scamper off. Or alternatively to sedate, capture and move it out of town.
But the real problem is the ongoing cougar killing championed by the ODFW that ignores good science and feeds public fears. Indiscriminate killing by hunters and trappers is the ultimate source of predator conflicts in Oregon. In California, where cougar hunting has been banned for decades, there are far fewer conflicts with livestock and humans, despite the fact that California has more cattle, far more people and the highest cougar populations in the West.
— George Wuerthner is a former biologist with the Bureau of Land Management. He lives in Bend.