EUGENE, Ore. -- It's been almost a year since officials said an Oregon woman was killed by a cougar near Mount Hood, but the debate over allowing hunters to use dogs to sniff out the big cats continues.
Early on a Monday morning, predator control specialist Kelly Forney drives to rugged BLM land west of Roseburg to get ready for a day of tracking. He's armed with a rifle that shoots non-lethal darts, and he's not alone. Using GPS collars, Forney lets his seven hounds roam free while they search for their target, cougars.
"They're like cross-country athletes," Forney said while talking about his dogs. "They cover a lot of ground, and they need to be in good condition. They need to be able to use their nose."
Since the 70s Forney has been a volunteer with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He and his dogs are used to track the big cats. He shoots them with the darts, which contain DNA, and he retrieves and gives them to ODFW for a population study.
Forney said all of his dogs are trained to sniff out cougars, and once they get the scent, they'll chase the animal into a tree so he can take the shot.
In Oregon, it's legal to hunt cougars in the state yearround. But hunters said they can't use their best tool -- man's best friend. According to records from ODFW, in 2018, 16,147 hunters got a tag to hunt the big cats and 350 cougars were killed. That's a 2% success rate.
While Forney has permission from the state to use dogs, the average hunter can't -- making it difficult to track a big cat. Chris Yee, a wildlife biologist for ODFW in Springfield, said that and other regulations have led to an increase in the cougar population.
Yee said in the 1960s there were an estimated 200 cougars across the state. Now, there's an estimated 6,600, Yee said.
"They're a very adaptable species. They're like a large, feral house cat. They breed at any time of the year," Yee said. "As that species keeps expanding its range, it's number keeps going on."
In 1994 Oregon voters passed Measure 18, which banned the use of hounds to track cougars for trophy hunting. But Republican Sen. Bill Hansell of District 29, northeastern Oregon, said it's time for that to change.
"When the people took away the opportunity to hunt cougars by hounds or dogs, it created a whole different playing field because that is the most effective way," Hansell said.
He sponsored Senate Bill 306 last session. The bill would have allowed voters in each county to decide whether or not to bring back the use of dogs in cougar hunting. While Hansell's bill didn't gain any traction last year, he said he's not giving up.
"When they're looking for food, they start predating on livestock or pets, or given the opportunity even humans," Hansell said.
But Brooks Fahy, the executive director for Predator Defense, a Eugene-based nonprofit that advocates for wildlife, said human safety is not an issue.
"The public safety issue is a complete ruse," Fahy said. "There is nothing to it."
While a woman was killed by a cougar this past fall near Mount Hood, that's the only human fatality caused by a wild cougar in state history.
Fahy said the practice of using dogs to hunt cougars is cruel for both species and other wildlife. He also said he disagrees with the estimated number of cougars roaming the state. He believes that number is a lot lower.
"There is hardly a space in the state where they aren't being persecuted, and it's shameful," Fahy said.
Back in Douglas County, Forney's dogs found the scent of a cougar, but we couldn't get close enough to the cat because of steep and challenging terrain.
Along with collecting DNA, Forney said he also gets called in to deal with cougars that go after livestock and pose a public safety risk. He said he'll kill them as a last resort but said in most cases, he'll just shoot them with a DNA dart, and the cats will move on.
"There's seldom a day goes by in my experience that a cougar does not damage livestock or there is a human safety call," Forney said. "They are thick in Douglas County."
While the politicians in Salem continue to debate the use of dogs, the controversy isn't going away.