According to Washington's own best estimates, the State's cougar population has been cut in half since 2003. And in the past 25 years, people have killed more than 4,500 cougars, despite shrinking habitat and other human-caused threats limiting their survival.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cougar managers have begun working more closely with cougar research experts at Washington State University. While data indicates cougar hunting should immediately be reduced, politics continue to slow progress and push for even more killing of struggling cougar populations.
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." (For more about the history of cougars in Washington, visit our Washington History page.)
All of these management practices contain a single common element: killing cougars to benefit a small group of men. WDFW's most recent Cougar Management Plan (2009-2015) has proven itself to be little more then a list of justifications for killing cougars, rather than a serious proposal to manage a wildlife species in a way which creates and enhances a healthy and sustainable natural ecosystem.
The status of cougars in Washington is complicated by hidden intentions.
Washington's latest Cougar Management Plan acknowledges there are far fewer cougars in Washington than previously thought. The plan estimates cougar populations are down by half: from the maximum estimate of 4,100 reported in 2003, to somewhere between 1,800 and 2,100 in 2015.
Despite acknowledging cascading cougar population numbers, increased female cougar mortalities, reduced cougar complaints, and unbalanced and unsustainable cougar gender and age dynamics, recreational hunting of cougars is still permitted.
During the bounty period, most people were concerned only about how quickly the species could be eradicated. The few who were directly involved were motivated by how much money they could make by turning in a kill. The underlying intentions of today's decision-makers are much less clear.
Washington's latest Cougar Management Plan's primary intentions are to manage cougars solely through sport hunting to:
The intentions of bureaucrats are confusing. Most probably do not fully comprehend that Washington's lion population is at the brink of extirpation. Because commission members are appointed both to protect wildlife and to support hunting as a sport or recreation, they are likely to come from pro-hunting backgrounds. Once appointed, they are likely to seek solutions which seem to benefit both. Problems easily become obscured by peripherally-related issues such as gun rights, ranching profitability, and the availability of deer or elk to hunters who do not want to compete with cougar for their prey.
Killing is the only tool that bureaucrats seem to recognize. It's entrenched in the culture, policy, and practice of wildlife management. And whenever a decision is made to use hunting to address a problem, there is immediate gratification: you can give a hunter his trophy, provide a houndsman with some business, gift politicians with a talking point, appease those who erroneously believe that killing cougars will benefit the deer and elk herds, and reassure those who are unnecessarily afraid of cougars.
Unfortunately, the biologists who work within WDFW who understand the importance of lowering hunt quotas to maintain sustainable, healty populations, are often overruled by politics and Commissioners.
As cougars experience the stress associated with hunting, the imbalances that result from loss of established cougars in established territories, continuing habitat loss and increasing human activity in remote areas, conflicts are more likely to result. Cougars must travel further for a suitable mate. Well-established adults are replaced by inexperienced and competing young. Kittens are deprived of a mother before they are fully trained.
The irony is that the appearance of increasing conflicts is often seen by bureaucrats as evidence that cougar populations are healthy and increasing too. The outcry that agencies "haven't done enough" can be compelling. The fact is, WDFW has done too much... but true understanding of the danger to the species is difficult to achieve because it is counterintuitive, and the real situation may not become glaringly apparent until it is far too late. When complaints finally begin to drop because cougar populations have become dangerously low, bureaucrats are likely to pat themselves on the back with congratulations that their policies have finally worked.
Complaints are not a valid indicator of the sustainability of cougar populations. Not only because human-cougar conflicts are actually more likely when the big cats are over-hunted, but also because the complaint process can be so easily abused by special interests.
Urban home of high-tech environmental, computer and flight industries, yet steeped in rural traditions of forestry, ranching and hunting, Washington is a study in contrasts. There are few more divisive issues than conservation of the State's big predators: wolves, bears, and cougars.