County budget now includes cougar hunter

Despite residents' objections, Jackson County commissioners earmarked $30,000 Wednesday to hire a part-time cougar hunter.

"It seems like this plan is nothing more than a political shell game," said Stephanie Tidwell, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Tidwell said the crisis has been manufactured and tax dollars would be better spent on other county programs.

Commissioners approved the county's $287 million budget, which included money for the cougar hunter, although more research will be done before someone is hired. The county will also look for grant money so it can afford to hire a full-time cougar hunter.

Commissioner Jack Walker said he thought $30,000 was a small price to pay to avoid seeing someone's child killed by a cougar.

Lesley Adams of Ruch said she was more scared of methamphetamine labs than cougars. "We tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to our environmental problems," she said.

Sally Mackler, wildlife chairwoman for the Sierra Club of Oregon, said, "If cougars are after people in this county, we would be aware of it."

Mackler, who was one of nine who spoke in opposition to the plan, told commissioners that cougar attacks on people are rare, saying there have been only 17 deaths and 16 other non-fatal attacks in the Western states during the past 100 years.

She said that less than $12,392 in damage has been caused by cougars in the Rogue River watershed, citing an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife study.

She said the county's Web site, which lists alleged cougar encounters, and media stories about the big cats have inflamed the issue.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour agreed the Web site has been a problem, noting that many of the sightings don't seem to be valid. He noted one in particular in which a Medford resident reported his car had been attacked by a cougar.

The commissioners have been fielding complaints for the past two years from residents who say their pets or livestock have become cougar prey.

One resident who spoke in favor of the plan, Doug Jackson of Eagle Point, showed a picture of one of his family's pygmy goats killed by a cougar that hauled its carcass up into a tree.

Since that incident, he said he has kept a loaded gun by the back door in case a cougar comes near. "I'm terrified at the thought that a cougar will be stalking my grandkids," he said.

Commissioner C.W. Smith asked Mackler how many dogs in the county had been killed by cougars. Mackler responded by saying that rural residents need to become more responsible for their pets and livestock and learn to live with wildlife rather than just eradicate it. 

During a lengthy discussion in which commissioners offered their opinions and Mackler gave hers, Walker tried to cut off the conversation, saying the focus needed to be on the county's budget.

Mackler, who had been responding to commissioners' concerns, reacted with surprise to Walker's interruption, particularly after having engaged in a conversation with him. 

"I'm starting to get mad now," she said, and the conversation continued.

Smith and Mackler did agree that more needs to be done to educate rural residents about how to live with local wildlife and avoid unnecessary killing of cougars.

"It's not our intent to be involved in the wholesale slaughter of animals," said Smith.