State to vote on plan to scale back cougar hunting
State wildlife managers want to scale back cougar hunting in central and northeast Washington to protect declining populations of the big cats.
Seattle Times science reporter
Cougar hunting meetingThe Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet today and Saturday at Embassy Suites Hotel & Conference Center, 20610 44th Ave. W., in Lynnwood. The cougar-hunting vote is scheduled for Saturday morning. Public comment is allowed at the beginning and end of each day. For more information: http://wdfw.wa.gov/com/comintro.htm
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is proposing to scale back hound hunting of cougars to protect declining populations of the big cats.
The plan, which will be voted on Saturday by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, would reduce quotas by about 40 percent in central and northeastern Washington. The number of animals killed in the five-county area would drop from 102 to 62.
But for the first time, the state would allow "pursuit only" hunts, where cougars are chased and treed by hounds, but not shot. The goal is to find out whether such harassment will condition the cats to avoid people and homes, said Donny Martorello, WDFW's top cougar manager.
"It works with black bears," he said. For big cats, though, "the jury is still out."
Washington voters overwhelmingly approved a citizen initiative in 1996 that banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars, a practice some consider cruel. The dogs track the cougar by scent and chase it into a tree, giving the hunter an easy shot. Without the use of dogs, which are most effective in snow-covered areas, it is very difficult to find the elusive cats.
Complaints about cougars killing livestock and threatening humans soared in the early 2000s, and the Legislature in 2004 approved a three-year pilot project to reintroduced hound hunting in Chelan, Okanogan, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties, where the problems were most severe. Lawmakers this year extended the program another three years.
After the citizen initiative was adopted, state wildlife managers also liberalized regulations for cougar hunters who do not use dogs.
The net result is that hunters now kill more cougars, on average, than before the hound-hunting ban.
Researchers from Washington State University found cougar populations declined steeply in some of the most heavily hunted parts of northeastern Washington. At the same time, complaints remained high, likely as a result of younger, less-wily animals moving in to replace adults killed by hunters, according to studies by Robert Wielgus, director of WSU's Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory.
Because of this influx of "young hooligan" cougars, Wielgus says heavy hunting may actually increase human-cougar conflicts rather than reduce them.
State wildlife managers have been collaborating with WSU to find out if that's true and will continue gathering data over the next few years, Martorello said.
"We certainly don't want to make matters worse."
The data are already clear, though, that something needs to be done to stabilize cougar populations in central and northeastern Washington — which is the main reason for the proposed hunting reductions, Martorello said.
The department also is considering changes to the rules for so-called boot hunters — those who buy a $10 tag that allows them to kill cougars while hunting deer or elk. Among the proposals, which will be presented later this summer, are reducing the bag limit from two cougars to one and shortening the season.
Brian Vincent, of the conservation group Big Wildlife, said the quota reductions show state wildlife managers are paying attention to the latest science. But his group continues to push for a ban on killing cougars, except animals that pose a serious risk to people or livestock.
"Trophy hunters do not go after the very rare cougar that is causing a problem," he said. "They are indiscriminately killing cougars."
Over the past 100 years, one person in Washington has been killed by a cougar. During that same period, cougars have attacked about 15 people, according to state figures.
A cougar was spotted two weeks ago at several sites in Olympia, including a park and grocery-store parking lot. Wildlife managers attempted to track the animal with dogs but were unable to find it.
Martorello estimates about half of the state's cougar complaints come from along the Interstate 5 corridor between Olympia and Bellingham.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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