Oregon has about 6,000 cougars statewide, up from an estimated 200 in the late 1960s. Cougars are found in all suitable habitat in Oregon and their population is very healthy.
The recovery of cougars from their once-low numbers is a conservation success story for Oregon. However, with higher numbers of these predators comes increased conflict. Cougars can kill livestock and family pets. Sometimes, they linger around residences during the daytime or stop showing fear of people—behavior that concerns wildlife managers.
Cougars are also affecting Oregon’s big game (deer, elk, bighorn sheep) populations, which are well below desired levels in some parts of the state. While a number of factors have caused their decline, research within Oregon has shown that cougars can have a significant impact on deer and elk populations in some areas.
To address these problems, the 2006 Oregon Cougar Management Plan created a tool for wildlife managers known as a “cougar target area.” This is an area where ODFW staff or agents reduce the cougar population over a three-year period. Each area has an annual quota, and ODFW staff or agents can remove cougars of any age or sex up until that quota is reached.
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Several factors can trigger a target area including the number of cougars being killed for livestock damage or public safety concerns in the area (indicating a high level of conflict once it reaches a certain threshold) and deer and elk populations falling below management objectives. These factors are outlined in the Cougar Management Plan. ODFW typically chooses three to four target areas at a time.
E Umpqua (Douglas County): Remove 30 cougars annually to reduce livestock damage and public safety conflicts
Interstate (Lake and Klamath Counties): Remove 50 cougars annually to improve mule deer populations
Warner (Lake County): Remove five cougars annually to improve mule deer populations
Steens Mtn (Harney County): Remove 10 cougars annually to improve mule deer and bighorn sheep populations
ODFW, USDA Wildlife Services, or volunteer agents can remove cougars using trained hounds or traps. Volunteer agents must undergo background checks and training before doing any cougar removal work for ODFW and are not permitted to keep the carcass. Cougars that are removed are taken to ODFW offices so staff can collect sex and age data.
Since the passage of Measure 18 by Oregon voters in 1994, using dogs to hunt cougars has been unlawful, and it remains so. Measure 18 did allow ODFW to appoint agents with hounds to respond to livestock damage, public safety situations, or other official cougar management actions. Hounds are an indispensable tool in cougar management because these specially-trained dogs can pick up and track a cougar’s scent.
ODFW closely tracks all cougars killed in Oregon. Sporthunters and landowners must check in the carcass of any cougar they kill within 10 days so ODFW can track its age and sex. Should the number of cougars killed exceed a certain threshold, ODFW would end all sport hunting and cougar target area removals for the rest of the season (until Jan. 1 of the following year). Cougars could still be removed if a damage or safety situation arises.
Since 2006, ODFW has completed about 10 cougar target areas across the state, and in most cases has achieved the desired effect. Elk calf survival doubled in Ukiah Unit and Heppner’s elk population increased. Livestock conflict decreased in the Beulah Unit. A change in mule deer populations was harder to detect, but hunter success rates and the number of older bucks taken by hunters both increased in Steens Mtn. and Warner where cougar target areas were in effect from 2012-15.
While cougar population density within target areas has been reduced for a time, the number of cougars within each zone and statewide has continued to grow. Research conducted in Oregon has indicated these populations are resilient and recover rather quickly from these targeted removals.
After three years of removing cougars, ODFW will assess whether or not the cougar target area had the desired effect and report these results to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in a public meeting.