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 (1988-2012) humans have managed to kill at least 4,526 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 11,739 cougars have been reported killed by humans in Washington. Sixty 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 45 years (1966-2011) "recreational" hunters killed at least 7,985 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 2011, only two hundred and seventy-six cougars (276), or an average of 17 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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In Washington's legal code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as "cougar."
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Washington's latest mountain lion management plan is found in the state's href:"http://mountainlion.org/us/wa/WAWDFWManagementPlan042914.pdf">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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
The Washington State Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State's roads.
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.
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.