State Sen. Alan Bates believes a bill that would allow counties to opt out of 18-year-old bans on sport-hunting cougars and bears with hounds and baiting bears likely will get a public hearing in a Senate committee this session amid heavy lobbying both to air it and to quell it.
If so, then House Bill 2624 would become the first such House bill to get a Senate hearing since Measure 18's passage in 1994 enacted the statewide baiting and hounding bans.
"We haven't really decided but my sense right now is we'll probably give it a public hearing," said Bates, D-Medford, a member of the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee, where the bill currently sits.
But whether it makes it to the full Senate for a vote is "up in the air," Bates said. "It could go either way.
"It's a volatile issue here in Oregon," he said. "Talk about a rural-urban divide question. It's right there."
The bill would allow a county to opt out of Measure 18's bans if voters in that county approve either an initiative petition or a referral to voters by county commissioners.
The bill passed April 23 out of the House by a vote of 40-19, barely over the required two-thirds majority. It was referred to the Senate committee May 1.
Since then, committee hearings have been scheduled out to next Wednesday without HB 2624 on any committee agenda, records show.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, did not return telephone calls or emails seeking comment on whether she supported a hearing.
In 2011, a similar bill reached Dingfelder's committee and it died without a hearing.
This round, supporters and opponents of the bill have lobbied committee members as well as other senators and representatives over the bill itself and the merits of a hearing.
"We are confident (Dingfelder) will handle the bill as she has in the past," said Sally Mackler, of rural Jacksonville, who is the Oregon carnivore representative for the group Predator Defense. "It has no more validity today than it had the numerous times when similar bills were introduced and died.
"It's strictly an attempt to override state wildlife law and tactics Oregonians abhor," Mackler said.
The Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, which has sought repeals of all or parts of Measure 18 since its inception, has launched what state secretary Duane Dungannon called perhaps the most organized effort to get its members to weigh in on the bill. The OHA sent Web-based legislative updates to about one-third of its roughly 10,000 members asking them to lobby on behalf of the bill and a committee hearing on it, Dungannon said.
Supporters argue that rural counties that didn't support the bans would get what they believe is a necessary tool for curbing livestock damage and human-safety concerns.
"Nine of 36 counties approved Measure 18, with mostly urban counties favoring the bans and rural counties opposing them," Dungannons said.
"Eighteen years ago, nine counties dictated predator management for all 36 counties," Dungannon said. "We want to look back at something 18 years later to see if it's working."
A similar bill allowing counties to opt out of part or all of Measure 18's restrictions died in the Legislature's 2011 session after passing out of the House in bipartisan fashion, with far more support from rural representatives than urban ones.
But it never gained a Senate committee hearing.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the statewide cougar population now at 5,850 animals, almost twice the estimate when Measure 18 was enacted.
At the same time, total cougar deaths in Oregon have risen from 204 in 1994 to 524 in 2012. The sport season is year-round but the state is broken into zones and with specific quotas.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.