SWEET HOME — Nearly 200 people from as far south as Grants Pass discussed the state's cougar population during a meeting Thursday night sponsored by state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger at the Boys & Girls Club.

They agreed the population is growing, but not on what to do about it, or if it's a problem at all.

Sprenger, who represents House District 17, called the meeting in response to what appears to be a rash of recent cougar sightings in her district. Sweet Home police have received five reports in October alone. The Linn County Sheriff’s Office this week investigated a report of a large male cougar in a neighborhood near Lacomb. Officials in Kelso, Washington, and Springfield, have also reported cougar sightings near schools.

Joining Sprenger were Shannon Hern, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fish and Wildlife Programs; Doug Cottan, wildlife division administrator; and Lt. Todd Hoodenpyl and Sgt. James Halsey of the Oregon State Police.

Hern said the state has had a cougar management plan since 1983, and it's updated every five years. Oregonians, she added, are especially concerned about these sightings after the September death of a woman believed to have been caused by a cougar.

According to officials, the state's cougar numbers are estimated, since the animals are elusive. But the current population is believed to be about 6,400, a considerable rise from the the 1960s, when about 200 cougars were left in the state. They were once found in all 48 contiguous states, but today they're found in 16.

Female and male cougars weigh up to 90 and 140 pounds, respectively, and live eight to 12 years in the wild. Female cougars have litters of two to four kittens that rely on their mothers for 18 to 24 months. Although their main prey are deer, young and older cougars will eat wild turkeys or other small animals if pushed out of prime hunting grounds. A single cougar will cover 50 to 100 square miles and does not tolerate other cougars, especially males.

Hoodenpyl said Oregon State Police game officers respond to reports that involve a public safety threat.

“We work with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure the public is safe and that no one gets hurt.”

Hoodenpyl said people have the right to protect themselves and their livestock, but advised that the use of firearms within a city's limits is against the law.

Cottan, who has spent 30 years studying cougars, said there are currently three in-state target areas of concern: two in eastern Oregon and one in southern Oregon. Those sighted in towns are often younger animals that have been pushed out of prime deer country, or older cougars with tooth problems, who are seeking smaller game.

Reducing the number of cougars in Oregon “would take a lot of effort,” he said, adding that the major factor in the number of adult cougars and their location is the availability of prey such as deer and elk.

One person said cougars may be greatly reducing the state's deer population, but Cottan said it wasn’t a major pressure.

“We have a lot of deer,” he said. “The cougars are looking for a place to live. Males will kill each other for territory. The younger cougars are looking for wild turkeys and raccoons. There are resident cougars in the city of Eugene.”

Public comments were limited to three minutes and included thoughts and opinions on topics such as:

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• Repealing a law that bans hunting with dogs.

• Whether hunting cougars with dogs is inhumane.

• A cougar that killed a child's bottle-fed calf close to a home.

• A proposal that the state should allow a limited number of hunting tags with hounds, but the hunters should be vetted.

• The fact that only about a third of Oregonian hunters currently with cougar tags are actually hunting cougars. Most get tags to coincide with other hunts.

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• The fact that about 60 percent of the cougars harvested after hound hunts were males. Hunters would tree, but not kill, female cougars.

• The possibility that in-town cougars may be “orphans” whose parents were killed by hunters.

• The idea that Oregonians — especially rural residents — need to learn to live with cougars.

• The idea that cougars reduce potential Lyme disease transmittal by eating infected deer.

In addition, Oregon Cougar Action Team members were present with a livestock guard dog puppy, one of 20 they hope to place with ranchers in lieu of killing neighboring cougars.

“I am ecstatic at how well it went,” Sprenger said afterward. “Everyone who wanted to speak got to speak and there was a lot of good information shared without lots of drama.”

Sprenger is drafting a bill, to be introduced in the 2019 Legislature, that would allow individual counties to opt into working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue tags that would allow hunters to use hounds based on biological analysis of cougar populations within those counties.

“You won’t be able to just opt in because you want to allow hunting with hounds,” she said. “There will be extensive criteria and we’re evaluating all of that now.”

Sprenger said she is trying to help “create some tools so that rural Oregonians can deal responsibly with this issue.”

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.