Despite the passage of Initiative-655 in 1996, Washington's cougars are threatened now more than ever before. The law designed by citizens to protect large predators was broken to benefit a few greedy hound outfitters and trophy hunters and to slaughter more lions.
For fifteen years, politicians have designed policies and practices to negate the law's limited protections. Their actions have created what many experts are now calling a dysfunctional cougar population: disproportionately composed of young, inexperienced cougars which are most likely to get into conflicts with people, pets and livestock.
The State of Washington encompasses approximately 71,342 square miles of land. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) states that cougars can be found in the forested regions of the state, which represent around 34,168 square miles. This habitat is distributed throughout much of Washington, except for a large expanse of the Columbia River basin.
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," a commodity for sale, and since 1997 at bargain basement prices.
It should be noted that all of those so-called management practices consist of a single common element: the lethal removal of cougars to benefit man. WDFW's most recent Cougar Management Plan (2009-2015) has proven itself to be no better. In fact, Washington's alleged "cougar management plan" is more a list of justifications for killing cougars than a serious proposal to manage a wildlife species in a way which creates and enhances a healthy and sustainable natural ecosystem.
WDFW's slogan is "sound stewardship," and some of their cougar management goals actually sound reasonable, especially the goal to "ensure healthy, productive populations." Similarly, WDFW has included an obvious appeasement to conservationists, by including a promise to manage Washington's cougars for "wildlife viewing and photography," no matter how unlikely those non-lethal recreational activities might be. But as with everything, "the price is in the pudding." Washington's latest cougar management plan starts out by admitting that there are far fewer cougars in Washington than previously thought. Down from the maximum estimate of 4,100 reported in 2003, to somewhere between 1,900 and 2,100 in 2009. From that point onward this acknowledgement of a cataclysmic reduction in the state's cougar population apparently has no relevance or impact on the plan's primary objectives: placating the unrealistic fears of rural legislators, and satisfying the desires of hunters.
Despite acknowledging cascading cougar population numbers, increased female cougar mortalities, reduced cougar complaints, and unbalanced and unsustainable cougar gender and age dynamics, WDFW is continuing with their plans to increase annual cougar mortalities with a weak reassurance that the species will be sustained over the long term. They even infer that no harm can come to Washington's cougars because "cougar populations are fairly resilient to moderate-heavy exploitation." WDFW gives as proof the fact that cougars survived "widespread persecution" during Washington's 25-year bounty period.
What isn't pointed out is that today's level of cougar slaughter dwarfs that which occurred during Washington's Bounty Period. During that 25 year period, 3,064 cougars were reported killed. During the last 25 years of available cougar mortality data (1985-2009) humans have managed to kill at least 4,583 cougars. That's a 50 percent increase over what occurred during a time when most people were only concerned with how quickly the species could be eradicated, and how much money one could make by turning in the kill. Yet WDFW still acts as if those years represent the Dark Ages of cougar management while present policies and practices are a shining example of enlightened wildlife management: based on scientific data, and with the best interests of the species in mind!
Sprinkled throughout this management plan is the phrase "... while at the same time maintaining long-term sustainable populations." This remark appears in almost every action or intent statement, sort of a promise to stop killing cougars before they are wiped out. Unfortunately it also appears to be a hollow promise. Almost all the researchers agree that something very bad is happening to Washington's cougar population. WDFW even admits to the 50 percent reduction in the species numbers; yet recent efforts to extend the so-called public safety cougar removals as well as increase the actual number of cougars killed each year proves that the statement in question isn't really a promise, but a proverbial fig leaf for department officials.
Stripped of all the flowery rhetoric, Washington's latest cougar management plan's primary intentions are to:
In 1996, with a 63 percent majority vote, Washington voters passed Initiative 655, which banned the use of hounds while hunting cougars. 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. The following year, WDFW and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission attempted to compensate for 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 sport-hunting related cougar mortalities have far exceeded those of pre-initiative 655 days.
Despite WDFW's negation of I-655's limited protections, 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. 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.
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, and at this time (April 2011) new legislation is being considered to extend or even make permanent this unnecessary program.
Immediately following the passage of I-655, WDFW reported a substantial increase in "cougar complaints." For years now, this "increase" has been the primary justification for almost all the lethal actions taken against cougars in Washington. But it is MLF's contention that this is more a problem of semantics — the misuse of the word "complaint," — rather than any real indication of a statewide cougar problem. Under this heading, 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. We believe that by using the word "complaint" in the manner they did, WDFW has purposely misled the public in an effort to justify their policies.
Since 1936, (the first year records are available) at least 11,600 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.
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." Over the next 43 years (1966-2009) "recreational" hunters killed at least 7,180 cougars.
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.
Between 1995 and 2009, only two hundred and fifty six cougars (256), or an average of 18 per year, were reported killed in Washington for preying on pets or livestock. Prior to the passage of I-655 in 1996, there appears to have been little or no problem with livestock predation by cougars. A 1984 WDFW cougar status report states:
" Attacks by lions on domestic animals are infrequent in Washington and consequently represent a minor management concern or political force when compared to other western states."
This exact phrase was repeated in another WDFW report in 1988. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the number of cougars killed in Washington for "depredation" purposes had reached levels WDFW felt were sufficient to track. A 1996 WDFW cougar status report acknowledged that 20 cougars were killed the previous year for attacks on pets and livestock. At the same time, WDFW's official estimate of the state's cougar population doubled.
Between the years 2000 and 2007, two hundred and six (206) cougars were reported killed in Washington for "public safety" purposes. As a comparison, during the same time period, 72 cougars were killed for public safety reasons in California, which has an estimated cougar population at least double that of Washington (4,000 - 6,000). Part of this vast difference in cougar mortality numbers can be attributed to how the incidents were reported, but recent studies are now indicating that possibly WDFW's Post-I-655 cougar hunting policies may also have been a factor. Cougar researchers from Washington State University postulate that as a result of these policies, the average age and gender of Washington's cougar population has been radically changed with a predominance now of young male cougars — the category most likely to be involved in incidents involving cougars and livestock.
Despite high annual cougar mortalities, a shrinking cougar population, and a steady decrease in confirmed human safety incidents and pet and livestock depredations since the year 2000, pro-cougar hunting forces still insist that more animals need to be killed. It was this argument which first allowed the passage of SSB-6118 in 2004 and its subsequent renewal since. As a result, at least 257 cougars have been killed over a six year period in Chelan, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Okanogan, and Stevens counties in addition to those cougar mortalities caused by sport hunting, public safety incidents, or for preying on pets and livestock. While this pro-active cougar removal program was intended to reduce the number of conflicts between cougars and humans and public safety risks, the opposite appears to have occurred.
Washington's cougar population, especially those residing within this 5-county region, has — as a direct result of WDFW's policies — experienced a shift in the gender and age of the remaining cougars, so that there is now a preponderance of young male cougars — the very subset most likely to get into conflicts.
Continuing this unwise program is more a case of dumping gasoline on an out of control fire, rather than effectively addressing the issue at hand.
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Last Update: February 14, 2012