By James sinks

WesCom News Service

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - Oregonians voted twice in the 1990s to block sportsmen from hunting cougar with hounds and attracting bears with bait.

But a decade later, legislators are considering a plan that would allow selected hunters to use the forbidden techniques - pointing to a run-up in cougar population, a decline in deer and elk herds and concerns about public safety in rural locales.

The proposal: deputize them.

A Senate committee late last week opened hearings on that legislation, which has already passed the House, and got an earful from wildlife protection and conservation groups.

They fear the plan could allow a killing spree of thousands of cougars and say it represents an end-run around voters.

andquot;This will lead to indiscriminate killing of cougars in a target area, whether or not they have caused any harm whatsoever,andquot; said Sally Mackler, who lives in Jackson County and represents the Sierra Club.

The debate is the latest political tug-of-war over predator management in Oregon in the wake of Measure 18, which passed in 1994. In 1996, voters rejected a proposal to repeal the initial law, and several bills since have attempted to loosen the restrictions.

A provision in Measure 18 allows government employees or agents to use radio-collared dogs to control problem cougars.

Under House Bill 2971, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife could appoint a hunter to act as an agent. The legislation has the backing of the Oregon Hunters Association and is being pushed by a coalition of rural Republicans and Demo-crats.

andquot;Voters didn't say no to dealing with cougars that threaten other indigenous species in given areas of the state,andquot; said state Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Tumalo, who supports the bill. andquot;We worked hard to find a rational compromise. In the measure there were provisions for the cougar population to be maintained at scientifically sustainable levels.andquot;

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee will decide Tuesday whether to advance the bill or euthanize it, said Chairman Sen. Brad Avakian, D-Beaverton.

Avakian said the legislation -despite the assertions of critics - does not make cougars subject to renewed trophy hunting, because the agents would not be allowed to keep the carcasses.

of animals they kill.

andquot;This bill would not be moving if they got to keep the animals,andquot; he said.

About the bill

Under the bill, agents would help thin cougar numbers in areas where a state cougar plan says there are too many big cats or where they have caused problems. Critics say that method will lead to innocent cougars being killed.

The cougar population today is estimated at more than 5,000 statewide.

State Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, told the Senate committee that the law gives the wildlife agency a new tool to help keep cougars at bay.

The predators have been spotted in a marshy area near a school in his coastal district, he said.

andquot;Those of us who live in rural areas realize that wildlife is coming to visit us more and more,andquot; he said.

That sentiment drew a retort from Barbara Wilson, of Beaverton, the chairwoman of Friends of Mount Hood. She said the problem isn't cougars entering populated areas: It's people moving into cougar habitat.

Brian DeLashmutt, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States, said the proposal does not require verification that cougars are actually harming livestock or menacing humans. A 2005 bill allows cougars who are spotted during the day to be shot on sight, he said.

There have been no recorded cougar attacks on people in Oregon.

In 2005, a cougar caused a stir in Bend when it was spotted prowling Awbrey Butte. It was never caught.

Al Elkins, who represents the Oregon Hunters Association, said the state-deputized agents will be volunteers and that they would need to undergo training and conform to standards that will be set by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Jim Ince, a Douglas County rancher, sees no need to kill cougars because, as predators, they control their own population. He raises cattle but has never lost one to a cougar, he said.

andquot;There is no need to institute additional cougar management and to deputize the houndsmen, of all people,andquot; he said.