If anybody should be afraid of cougars, you’d think it would be me. It’s pretty certain that a cougar killed two fawns near our house recently, and my dog-walking routine takes me right through this area near dusk (or even after dark).
But I don’t worry about being attacked by a cougar because the risk is infinitesimal. I’m at about thirty times greater risk of being struck by lightning. So what is the problem that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s much-debated plan to proactively kill cougars is trying to solve?
Short answer: there isn’t one. The Oregon Cougar Management Plan is based on fictions, not facts. It’s an emotional reaction to the existence of a natural predator that hasn’t attacked a person in this state during the past thirteen years.
There’s no rational reason to go out and kill cougars just because they exist, and might pose a threat to a person one day. That “might” is an exceedingly flimsy excuse for spending loads of taxpayer dollars in a misguided attempt to reduce an already negligible risk.
Here are the facts of the matter as Hopkins presents them in his October 31, 2005 comments on the Draft 2005 Oregon Cougar Management Plan. I’ve slightly edited excerpted remarks for clarity.
(1) Cougars clearly represent almost no threat to humans. In all of North America over the last 112 years there are only about 100 documented cases of cougars attacking people, with 17 deaths resulting from the attacks. A disproportionate number of these attacks have occurred in the past 30 years, but this likely is due to the increase in the human population.
Since 1990 Washington state has recorded 8 attacks, California 7, and Oregon 0. [Yes, that’s right: zero.] The risk of an attack is probably on the order of 1 in 100 million or more. It is amazing that the ODFW feels compelled to concern themselves with cougar/human incidents that affect two to three people per year (one or two children at most) in all of North America.
(2) Sport hunting or other means of killing cougars don’t reduce the risk to humans of an attack. The belief that increased killing of cougars will reduce the risk of an attack is simply not based on any scientific analysis and is logically deficient. If you reduced the cougar population in the state by 10% and assumed this meant your risk improved by 10%, you have simply shifted the odds from 1 in 100 million to 1 in 110 million. In other words, it is simply immeasurable: you would have no way to know that you had any effect.
An extensive analysis of attack statistics across North America have caused me to conclude that the intensity of sport-hunting is not at all correlated with a concomitant change in the risk to humans. Simply put, sport-hunting is irrelevant with questions related to human safety threats. California has more people, more cougars, and no sport-hunting season for 33 years and yet ranks near the bottom of risk rate.
The best advice is to not try to micro-manage cougar populations to reduce rare events: there is simply no science to support it.
(3) Most sightings of cougars are false. Dr. Beier studied a population of cougars in Southern California. He determined that 70-90% of reports of cougars along the urban/rural interface were false sightings. [See my “Oregon cougar sighting really a kitty cat” post] Thus, changes in “sighting data” is more a measure of changes in people’s attitudes or anxieties related to the cougar and has almost no relevance for evaluating changes in cougar populations.
In reality, the Plan as proposed would not reduce the risk of being attacked in Oregon, as the current risk is so small as not to be reasonably measured. Those Oregonians (and tourists) who live or recreate in cougar country expose themselves daily to many more risky activities and yet they never consider nor concern themselves with the true risk these activities pose.
Hopkins also says, “The yearning to get back to nature has inadvertently created an increased anxiety between people and the very nature they want to experience.” Good point. We call them wildlife for a reason. They are wild.
I can’t understand this fear of wildness. Maybe it is a Christian thing—dominance over nature and all that. Too many people have this unnatural idea that nature has to be managed and obsessively controlled rather than left alone.
How about coming up with a Cougar Unmanagement Plan, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife? That blank piece of paper would save lots of your time and our money. There’s no need to try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Leave cougars alone.