Washington's Hoh Mountains
 
Photograph of hunting dogs hounding a cougar to the edge of a precipice.

WASHINGTON LAW AFFECTING COUGARS

Hound hunters continue to pressure government officials to allow the use of dogs to hunt lions.

In 1996, Washington voters passed an initiative, 655, to prohibit the use of hounds in hunting cougars. The citizen group which began the initiative — and collected 228,148 signatures to qualify for the ballot — would have preferred a stronger statute, and consulted with Mountain Lion Foundation about California's success.

But even the limited law could not command the respect of Washington politicians and bureaucrats. They've used the very provisions of compromise and tolerance which citizens built into the law to undermine its intent and to destroy the same wildlife the law was meant to protect.

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Washington Cougar Laws and Regulations


In Washington's legal code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as "cougar."

Species Status

The species is classified as a game animal, along with eastern cottontail, Nuttall's cottontail, snowshoe hare, white-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed jackrabbit, fox, black bear, raccoon, bobcat, Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, moose, pronghorn, mountain goat, California and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and bullfrogs. The species is further classified as big game, along with elk/wapiti, blacktail deer, mule deer, whitetail deer, moose, mountain goat, caribou, mountain sheep, pronghorn antelope, black bear, and grizzly bear.

Laws and regulations pertaining to Washington's threatened and endangered species can be applied to mountain lions because any species native to Washington may be classified as threatened or endangered. However, mountain lions are not currently classified as threatened or endangered in Washington because the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission does not believe that mountain lions are seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range within the state.

State Law

Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of Washington is governed by the Revised Code of Washington - the collection of all the laws passed by the Washington legislature. The state's treatment of wildlife is also governed by the Washington Administrative Code - the collection of all the state's agency rules. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for the State of Washington.

You can check the statutes directly at a state-managed website.

These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name "cougar" to accomplish your searches.

The Legislature

The Washington State Legislature is the state's bicameral legislative body. The lower chamber - the House of Representatives - is made up of 98 members who serve 2-year terms. The Democratic Party has controlled the Washington House of Representatives since 2002. The upper chamber - the Senate - consists of 49 members who serve 4-year terms. Washington maintains this website to help you locate your state legislators.

The Washington Constitution allows the state legislature to determine when it convenes. Washington law establishes the second Monday of January each year as the date the legislature convenes. The constitution limits regular sessions in odd-numbered years to 105 consecutive days. In even-numbered years, regular sessions are limited to 60 consecutive days. Special legislative sessions may be called by either the governor or by the vote of two-thirds of the members of each chamber. Special sessions are limited to 30 consecutive days.

Initiative and Referendum Processes

Washington allows its citizens to propose new laws through its initiative process and to repeal existing laws through its veto referendums. Washington initiatives are submitted to either the people or to the state legislature. Unlike some other states, Washington does not allow citizens to amend its constitution through initiatives. The initiative and referendum processes are created by Article II of the Washington Constitution , and they are governed by Chapter 29A.72 of the Revised Code of Washington. In order to be placed on the ballot or submitted to the legislature, proposed initiatives must gather valid voters' signatures equal to 8% of the number of votes cast for the office of governor in the last gubernatorial election. Veto referendums require valid signatures equal to 4% of the last gubernatorial vote. In order to pass, an initiative must be approved by a simple majority - unless the initiative aims to authorize gambling or a lottery, in which case a 60% supermajority is required - and at least one-third of those voting in the election must have voted on the measure. Unless the initiative specifies a different date, an approved initiative goes into effect 30 days after the election.

Initiative 655

The Washington Bear-Baiting Act — submitted to voters as Initiative 655 — was approved by 62.99% of voters on November 5, 1996. The initiative classified baiting black bears and hunting black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and lynxes with dogs as gross misdemeanors in the State of Washington. However, there have been many attempts to overturn Initiative 655 since it was passed.

Click here for more information on I-655.

State Regulation

Washington's wildlife regulations are found in Title 232 of the Washington Administrative Code. The regulations are written by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is made up of nine members who serve 6-year terms. Members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Washington Senate. At least three commissioners must reside east of the Cascade Mountains and at least three must reside west of the Cascade Mountains. No two commissioners may reside in the same county. Law requires that all commissioners "have general knowledge of the habits and distribution of fish and wildlife" and prohibits them from holding any other office. When making appointments, the governor is to ensure the commission represents diverse viewpoints including sport fishers, commercial fishers, hunters, private landowners, and environmentalists. The commission's main responsibilities are to set the state's wildlife regulations and to oversee the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)

The (WDFW) Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforces the state's wildlife laws and policies. The department divides itself into separate wildlife and enforcement branches. The WDFW is a department within the Washington executive branch. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission oversees the WDFW's activities.

Management Plan

Washington's latest mountain lion management plan is found in the state's 2009-2015 Game Management Plan. The state's plans for game management cover 6-year periods. The report is prompted by the WDFW's legal mandate to "preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage" the state's wildlife. The plan is assembled by the WDFW Wildlife Program and guides the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission's policy decisions.

Hunting Law

Hunting of mountain lions is allowed in the State of Washington. The regulations and laws governing "recreational" hunting of mountain lions specify 150 game management units organized into 6 regions. Mountain lion hunting season runs from September 1 to March 31.

Hound hunting is not allowed. However, the WDFW may allow the use of dogs during "public safety cougar removals."

Washington allows the hunting of mountain lions with non-fully automatic firearms, centerfire cartridges greater than .22 caliber, shotguns 20 gauge or larger firing slugs or buckshot size #1 or larger, centerfire handguns with a minimum barrel length of four inches, crossbows with a draw weight greater than 125 pounds and a working trigger guard, and muzzleloading firearms .45 caliber or larger. Muzzleloading handguns used to hunt mountain lions may have one or two barrels, but both barrels must be rifled and be eight inches or longer. Mountain lions may also be hunted with long bows, recurve bows, and compound bows that produce at least 40 pounds of pull.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission sets "harvest guidelines" for most of Washington's game management units. Game management units may be closed to mountain lion hunting after January 1 if the unit's harvest guideline is met or exceeded. Harvest guidelines are based on recommendations in Washington's Game Management Plan. Washington prohibits the killing of spotted kittens and adult mountain lions accompanied by spotted kittens.

Public Safety Law

Washington policy allows a person to kill any mountain lion that is attacking a person or "posing an immediate threat of physical harm to a person." Further policy states that the killing of a mountain lion in order to protect a person must be reported to the WDFW with 24 hours and the carcass must be surrendered to the WDFW or its designees.

Depredation Law

Depredation policy in Washington allows an owner to kill one mountain lion that is attacking livestock or domestic animals without a permit. A permit is required to kill any number of mountain lions that are damaging crops or to kill multiple mountain lions that are attacking livestock. Further policy allows the mountain lion carcass to be kept by the owner. There is a government-funded compensation program for owners who have worked with the WDFW to prevent depredation.

Trapping

Mountain lions may not be trapped for fur in Washington. Washington's regulation governing trapping states that only furbearing animals may be trapped. The state does not include mountain lions on its list of furbearing animals. If a mountain lion is caught in a trap, it must be released unharmed. If the mountain lion cannot be released unharmed, the trapper is to notify the WDFW immediately. Intentionally trapping a mountain lion is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment of up to 90 days and a fine of up to $1,000.

Poaching

Poaching law in the State of Washington provides some protection of mountain lions in law, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again. Hunting a mountain lion in any unlawful manner in Washington is generally classified as "unlawful hunting of big game in the second degree," which is a gross misdemeanor. A gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to 364 days of imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. The WDFW will also revoke all the poacher's existing licenses, tags, and permits, and suspend his/her hunting privileges for two years. A poacher is guilty of "unlawful hunting of big game in the first degree" if they possess three or more big game animals during the same "course of events" or if they are less than five years removed from a previous conviction for unlawful hunting of big game. Unlawful hunting of big game in the first degree is a class C felony punishable by imprisonment for up to five years and a fine of up to $10,000. Upon conviction, the WDFW will also suspend the poacher's licenses, tags, and permits, and suspend his/her hunting privileges for ten years.

Road Mortalities

The Washington State Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State's roads.

Captivity

Washington law generally bans the private possession of mountain lions. The law states, "A person shall not own, possess, keep, harbor, bring into the state, or have custody or control of a potentially dangerous wild animal," and goes on to ban the breeding of potentially dangerous wild animals. Mountain lions are listed as potentially dangerous wild animals. This ban, however, does not apply to institutions authorized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to keep "deleterious exotic wildlife" (a designation that does not) include mountain lions), zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, nonprofit animal protection organizations such as shelters, law enforcement officials in the course of enforcing wildlife laws, veterinary hospitals or clinics, authorized wildlife rehabilitators, wildlife sanctuaries, research facilities, circuses, anyone temporarily transporting potentially dangerous wild animals through the state, domesticated animals, anyone displaying wildlife at a fair approved by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and game farms which may not possess mountain lions.

Mountain lions may be kept for rehabilitation purposes in the State of Washington. An individual wishing to rehabilitate mountain lions in the state must obtain both a general wildlife rehabilitation permit and a large-carnivore rehabilitation endorsement. The state's regulation does not state what is required on the permit application but requires the applicant to demonstrate that he or she has completed at least six months or 1,000 hours of wildlife rehabilitation under the supervision of an authorized wildlife rehabilitator, provide the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with a letter of recommendation from an authorized rehabilitator who agrees to advise the applicant, submit a written agreement signed by a veterinarian who agrees to serve as the applicant's principal veterinarian, successfully complete the Washington General Wildlife Rehabilitation Examination, and have access to suitable rehabilitation facilities. Rehabilitation permits are valid for three years if not revoked sooner. In order to receive a large-carnivore rehabilitation endorsement , an applicant must demonstrate at least three months or 500 hours of experience rehabilitating and handling large carnivores (which are brown bear, black bear, cougar, wolf, bobcat, and lynx), show that he or she has been trained in large animal restrain techniques, submit to the department a letter of recommendation from a large carnivore rehabilitator who agrees to advise the applicant, successfully complete the state's large carnivore rehabilitation examination, and possess approved rehabilitation facilities. Washington requires rehabilitation facilities to meet standards set by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and the International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council. Authorized state and federal agents may inspect rehabilitation facilities, records, equipment, and animals without prior announcement at any reasonable time. Rehabilitators must keep daily records and submit an annual report to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Daily records must include all wildlife acquisitions, transfers, admissions, releases, deaths, reason(s) for admission, nature of illness or injury, dates of disposition, and any tag or band numbers. Annual reports must be completed on the form provided by the department and be submitted before January 31 each year. Copies of the rehabilitator's daily records from the year must be submitted along with his or her annual report.

Research

Mountain lion research is usually conducted in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Researchers must obtain a scientific permit under conditions prescribed by the department's director, but neither law nor regulation spells out the conditions. The applicant must demonstrate that he or she is qualified to undertake the proposed research and that the research is needed. The fee for a scientific permit is $12 and also requires an application fee of $100. Scientific permits are valid for the time specified on the permit unless they are revoked before expiration. There do not appear to be reporting requirements for researchers. Published studies can be found on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's website.

Click here to visit the scorecard's website...

Environmental Scorecard

Washington League of Conservation Voters

The Washington League of Conservation Voters scorecard considers the Washington State Legislature's environmental record over the past two years. It quantifies the environmental votes of each individual legislator — an important first step in considering accountability — and provides critical qualitative assessments as well. The scorecard will help you to know your legislator before you write a letter in support of cougars.

A Closer Look at Washington's Initiative 655


In 1996, with a 63 percent majority vote (1,387,577 voters), Washington voters passed Initiative 655, which banned the use of hounds while hunting cougars. 228,148 signatures were collected to qualify the measure for statewide election. The question asked on the ballot was, "Shall it be a gross misdemeanor to take, hunt, or attract black bears with bait, or to hunt bears, cougars, bobcat or lynx with dogs?"

Photograph of dead lion held up by two hunters, hound in foreground.

I-655 focused on banning these practices for "sport" hunting purposes, but still permitted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the use of bait or dogs if needed to deal with "problem" cougars.

When voters passed I-655, it was generally thought this action would significantly reduce the number of cougars killed in Washington. That, in part, was the intent of the initiative.

But, the following year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife" (WDFW) and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission openly attempted to override the expected drop in cougar mortalities by making radical changes in license costs, bag limits, and length of hunting season. As a result, the number of cougar hunting tags sold has expanded from only 1,000 in 1996 to close to 66,000 in 2009, and the number of cougars killed by sport hunters far exceeds pre-initiative days.

Cougar Complaints following Initiative 655s
WDFW 2010

Cougar "Complaints"

It's not surprising that, following the passage of I-655, WDFW reported a substantial increase in "cougar complaints." People were keeping a watchful eye out for the cougars they heard about on the news.

What is surprising is the tremendous volume of reports, and that the agency took the increased numbers at face value, rather than reassuring the public that there were certainly not substantially more cougars suddenly populating the state just months after the passage of the initiative.

For years, complaints had been the primary justification for almost all the lethal actions taken against cougars in Washington. But it's the agency's twisting of the word "complaint," — not any real indication of a statewide cougar problem, that has perpetuated myths and unreasonable fears.

Under the heading of "complaint", WDFW includes random (but non-dangerous) cougar sightings and mistaken identity calls (reports attributed to cougars but actually involving other animals such as domestic dogs, coyotes and bobcats) as well as confirmed depredation incidents involving pets or livestock. By using the word "complaint" in the manner they did, WDFW deliberately misled the public in an effort to justify their policies.

Almost immediately after its passage, opponents of the initiative started a statewide media campaign declaring that cougar populations in northeastern Washington were growing out of control and threatening humans. These opponents convinced the state legislature to direct the WDFW to initiate a formal "public-safety" hunting program that would allow the use of hounds to pursue and kill cougars in areas that reported human-cougar conflicts.

Brian Kerston of the Wildlife Science Group at the University of Washington, presented a paper which compares population and economic data for Washington and catalogues media coverage and county and eight legislative efforts to overturn I-655. He concludes that "cougar management legislation in Washington may be influenced by political and social factors and may not reflect a scientific understanding of cougar ecology and behavior."

Opposition to I-655 stemmed largely from rural communities throughout the state, but opposition to the initiative was greatest from voters east of the Cascade crest (Washington Secretary of State, personal communication 2004)... Many of these individuals viewed hound hunting of cougars as a way of life and strongly opposed what they perceived was increased intervention by government agencies and urbanites into their communities. Specifically, opposition to I-655 existed in four of the five northeastern counties: Okanagon, Ferry, Stevens, and Pend Oreille. ...endquote
Political and Social Influences on Cougar Management Legislation in Washington State: Post Initiative 655
Brian N. Kerston

In 2003, according to Kerston, the "northeastern county commissioners declared a state of emergency to force the cougar public safety issue with WDFW".

Click here to read Brian Kerston's entire report.
Click here to read Brian Kerston's entire report.

The exaggeration of complaints helped to create a climate of fear and reprisal. The agency acknowledges that changing public attitudes and significant media events can "change the rate of human-cougar interactions".

More significantly, though, even the perception of taking away opportunities for hunters and houndsmen, and restricting the behavior of rural ranchers, is very likely to increase the rate of reported human-cougar interactions which have no basis in fact at all.

Whether deliberate or hysterical, the vastly increased number of complaints following the passage of I-655 clearly bore no relationship to the number of cougars in the State at the time.

Chipping Away Washington's Cougar Protections

Despite WDFW's negation of I-655's limited protections — and dangerously high numbers of cougars killed each year since 655 — the citizen-placed ballot measure has always been targeted for removal by a few influential policy makers who refuse to accept the will of the people.

Washington Capitol Building.

In 2001, the Washington state legislature passed Substitute Senate Bill (SSB) 5001. This bill authorized WDFW to allow the use of hounds to cull cougar populations in areas where there were perceived problems. That same year, WDFW released the findings of a 16-year study in the Western Cascade Mountains that recommended, in part, the identification of areas that could serve as cougar reserves to help ensure the long-term viability of cougars in the state. Plans for the reserves were dropped in 2002 after significant opposition from rural legislators.

In 2002, cougar-hunters and influential legislators in Okanogan, Ferry, and Stevens counties successfully lobbied WDFW to increase the number of cougar permits issued in those counties. This action occurred despite opposition from Department biologists whose research indicated that concerns about conflicts were highly exaggerated and that the region's cougar population was on the decline, precisely because of the increased public safety killings.

On March 31, 2004, Senate Substitute Bill 6118 (the eighth legislative attempt to overturn I-655) was signed into law establishing a three-year public safety hunting program, with the use of hounds, in Chelan, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Okanogan, and Stevens counties. The five counties selected for the pilot project encompass approximately 44 percent of Washington's cougar habitat, but are home to fewer than 3 percent of the state's human residents.

Follow up legislation (ESHB 2438) extended this cougar eradication program to the spring of 2011. Since then, virtually every year there is a legislative or regulatory attempt to extend or even make permanent this unnecessary program by those want to reinstate hound hunting. In 2014, it came in the form of Senate Bill 6287 and was defeated thanks largerly to MLF supporters and scientists within WDFW willing to speak up for cougars.

Since 1936, (the first year records are available) at least 12,000 cougars have been reported killed by humans in Washington. 60 percent of these reported kills occurred after 1966 when cougars were classified as a game animal.

Catherine Lambert originally set out in 2002 to study regional variations in the reproductive response of cougars in the Pacific Northwest, but shifted gears when her radio-collared research subjects kept turning up dead. Lambert, then a student at Washington State University's Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory, was shocked to find that nearly half of 52 radio-collared cats had been shot by hunters or in response to livestock depredation attributed to cougars. The mounting body count suggested that the population could be in serious trouble from overhunting. But Lambert's field observations ran directly counter to the popular belief that I-655 had triggered a cougar population explosion. ...endquote
No Place for Predators?
Liza Gross

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has acknowledged drastically low cougar population numbers, increased female cougar mortalities, unbalanced and unsustainable cougar gender and age dynamics. And even reduced cougar complaints. Yet WDFW is continuing with their plans to increase annual cougar kills — and continuing "management" of the cougar as "game" — with a weak reassurance that the species will be sustained over the long term.

Not only has Washington brought the State's cougar population into an untenable situation on the very brink of survival, by manufacturing complaints they have simultanously "managed" to misinform the public about the true situation, and to change the dynamics of public support for cougar conservation. By opening up cougar hunting to deer hunters who might never have sought out a cougar tag under the pre-655 rules, WDFW has created a vast new generation of cougar hunters, and a new constituency to oppose any new restrictions on hunting predators in Washington.

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