Like most western states, cougars in Washington were first managed through a bounty process, then left for a few years to the good graces of whoever wanted to take the time to kill them, followed by the species classification by WDFW as a "game animal," and management as such.
In 1996, with a 63 percent majority vote, Washington voters passed Initiative 655, which banned the use of hounds while hunting cougars. Unfortunately, this expression of public sentiment toward lions was quickly undermined by hunting policies that resulted in even more cougars killed during the following years.
Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago. What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion. During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleontologist believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Washington, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.
Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song.
Along the Columbia River, a Wanapum petroglyph clearly depicting a cougar is one of hundreds preserved in the Ginkgo Petrified Forest. The famous "river spirit" petroglyph on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge near The Dalles may also represent a cougar (pictured above).
The name for cougars in the Sahaptin dialect was kw'ayawi; kw'aawi, or xwayawi. Among the Salishan names for cougar are s-wa, sk-tisemiye, and cwa-a.
The first European explorers of Washington were fur traders, traveling on foot and by canoe in the late 1700s. Many of the early settlers trapped beaver, bear, wolf, lynx, fisher, marten, fox and cougar to supplement their income. Europeans took advantage of native people's knowledge of the area, and encouraged natives to trap in exchange for goods and services.
The fur trade, particularly beaver, dominated the economy in the early 1800's, until streams had become overtrapped. Hudson's Bay Company posts and forts served as social as well as economic centers.
The fur trading period — as well as the timber industry — helped to establish a culture in Washington that treated wildlife and ecosystems primarily as commodities to be exploited, rather than as resources to be sustained.
This subculture remains in the eastern parts of the State, while people in the highly populated western urban centers now generally maintain a more environmentally sensitive point of view. The demographic division between the east and the west is reflected in Washington politics, and has heavily influenced the success of cougar legislation and conservation efforts.
Prior to the formation of the Washington Game Department in 1933, individual counties propagated a series of short-lived cougar bounty programs. No records are available on the success of these programs, nor how many cougars were actually killed. In 1933, cougars were classified statewide as a "predator," and in 1935, a bounty was emplaced by the state legislature.
For 25 years, from 1936 through 1960, the State of Washington paid a bounty on the 3,064 cougar carcasses presented to government agents. The peak cougar mortality period for this "livestock protection" program occurred over the six years following the end of World War II (1946-51). But this level of killing couldn't be sustained and, beginning in 1952, the number of dead cougars turned in for the bounty steadily dropped to only 55 for the final year (1960) of the program.
After Washington discontinued their cougar bounty program there followed five years (1961-65) where cougars were still classified as a predator, but no bounty was paid, nor were there any restrictions on the number killed. During those five years, 384 cougars were reported killed, but reporting by cougar hunters at that time is acknowledged as spotty at best.
In 1966, the Washington Game Commission classified cougars as a "game animal." Since 1966, recreational hunters have killed at least 8,500 cougars in the state.
Between 1966 and 1996, the primary method of hunting cougars in Washington involved the use of hunting-hounds to track, chase, and tree the cougar. After the passage of I-655 in 1996, hounds were banned for recreational cougar hunting. Subsequently, sport hunters had to rely on "opportunistic" kills, generated while in the act of hunting other prey — most commonly deer or elk. In 1997, to compensate for what WDFW anticipated would be a dramatic reduction in annual cougar mortalities, policies were implemented to increase the number of cougar hunters, while at the same time reducing or removing many of the existing cougar hunting restrictions. (For more about recent legal assaults on cougars in Washington, visit our Washington Law page.)
During the 25-year bounty period, 3,064 cougars were reported killed. During the last 25 years of available cougar mortality data people have managed to kill at least 4,700 cougars — that's a 50 percent increase.
Washington has increased the number of cougar tags to 66,000 per year, even while acknowledging that cougar numbers in the State may have dropped below 2,000.