SALEM"" The state Senate voted 19-8 Friday to allow the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to deputize volunteer houndsmen using radio-collared dogs to chase troublesome cougars up trees so the otherwise elusive cats can be shot at close range.




Part of implementing a statewide wildlife management plan aimed at preventing attacks on humans and livestock, the proposal moves closer to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who has said he will sign the bill, which supporters paint as a narrowly tailored "housekeeping bill" that could save the state money, but animal rights groups deride as inhumane.




Al Elkins, lobbyist for the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, said the bill would simply give the state "another management tool" to contain the state's growing cougar population while leaving intact the statewide ban on outdoor enthusiasts using dogs to hunt black bears and the big cats.




"This bill has absolutely nothing to do with changing ballot Measure 18," Elkins said, referring to the 1994 voter-approved initiative that banned recreational hound hunting. "But anytime you have the words: dogs, cougars and bears in a bill it raises a lot of concerns."




Carried by Sen. Alan Bates, the bipartisan bill would also authorize trained contract hunters to use bait barrels to attract bears in places where they pose a threat to property or public safety &

a practice, which in addition to hound hunting is restricted in the state.




Bates, an Ashland Democrat, whose voting record has earned him environmentalist bona fides with many of the state's conservation groups, said he agreed to carry House Bill 2971 in the Senate because he wanted a tempered debate of the topic, which has historically evoked "deep emotional" reactions by animal rights groups and hunters alike.




"That's what being a moderate is about," said Bates, describing his centrist political philosophy, in an interview before Friday's vote.




Cougar kills will not necessarily increase under the bill, he said, as state employees are lawfully using dogs currently to chase cougars in three trouble spots around the state, including in Jackson County, where officials plan to kill 24 cougars this year.




Allowing volunteer hunters to go after specific cats, Bates explained, will help reduce the wildlife agency's need to use steel traps and other "inhumane" techniques that often cost less money to use but often leave animals languishing.




In a May 22 letter obtained by The Daily Tidings, state Fish and Wildlife director Virgil Moore wrote to lawmakers that the bill would give his department "the tools that were made available to it by the voters," adding that the agency "seeks nothing more than that which was provided to us in Measure 18."




Even so, Brian Vincent, spokesman for Williams, Ore.-based Big Wildlife, said the bill runs roughshod over voters' wishes, and shows that trophy hunters wield more than their fair share of influence in Salem.




"This bill was an end-run around Measure 18 by the Oregon Hunters Association, and Senator Bates was their quarterback," Vincent said. "Now he's going to be responsible for as many as 2,000 cougars being chased up trees by packs of dogs and blasted with shotguns at point blank range."




Vincent added, "That's what Senator Bates' legacy is going to be."




State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, was one of 18 Democrats along with one Republican who voted against the bill in the House, arguing the proposal would encourage the "indiscriminate killing" of wildlife.




House Bill 2971 was amended in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee to include "guardrails," Bates said, including a six-year sunset and a proviso that state wildlife officials will report to the Legislature in two years to show that it is hiring and training responsible hunters.




Stephanie Tidwell, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, who traveled to Salem to persuade lawmakers to oppose the bill, said she is disappointed by the vote but not surprised by it.




Passage of the bill, she said, was a "foregone conclusion" after the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee "caved to the hound hunting lobby" last week and voted to advance the proposal to the full Senate.




Calling passage of the measure only the first salvo in what could be a protracted fight, Tidwell said a group of attorneys is scrutinizing the proposed state law looking for legal weaknesses.




"If we can find just one," she said, "I'll sue."




covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.