OLYMPIA -- Fifteen years after Washington voters banned using dogs to hunt cougars, lawmakers want to set permanent hunting seasons allowing licensed hunters to use hounds to track the cats, according to an Associated Press story.
The proposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, is the latest step in a seven-year process of addressing the 1996 ban through a pilot program aimed at testing cougar hunting seasons with dogs to stem the cougar conflict complaints that spiked after the ban.
The original three-year program has been extended twice so far.
Representatives from the Fish and Wildlife Commission say the pilot program has resulted in a 75 percent decline in confirmed complaints about cougars killing pets or livestock, or causing other problems.
Still, opponents of the bill say the use of hounds is cruel and inhumane, and is not being limited to public safety concerns.
The major opponent to the bill is the out-of-state-based Humane Society of the United States, which was a major funding source for the initiative campaign to ban hound hunting for cougars and bears.
HSUS is not affiliated with the "Humane Society" pet shelters that do the hard work of taking care of stray pets on a local level. Instead, HSUS is a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that mainly creates issues to feed its fundraising mission.
I elaborated on this with details from the HSUS tax returns in this recent column, one of several on the subject.
Meantime, read on for more of the AP story from Olympia.
"Essentially, we're concerned that this is going to allow sport hunters to use this as an excuse" for using dogs, said Jennifer Hillman, western regional director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission established the pilot program in 2004 and extended it through 2011 to protect public safety and manage cougar populations in six affected counties.
The bill would essentially make it permanent by letting the commission determine cougar hunting seasons, set quotas on cougar kills and decide who is permitted to hunt cougars, be it licensed hunters, state agents or contracted hunters.
Statewide Initiative 655 passed in 1996, prohibiting the use of dogs in cougar hunting but allowing exemptions for public safety and livestock depredation incidents.
"We want to make sure that the integrity of what the initiative proposed - and what was passed - is maintained," Hillman said.
Hillman's concerns about sport hunting involve companies that offer guided cougar hunts at a cost. The commerce attached to it, she said, shows that cougar hunting is used for more than just public safety.
Representatives from Fish and Wildlife, however, say they use hounds to exert better control aimed at creating healthy, stable cougar populations.
Donny Martorello, a section manager for the agency, said hunters are most likely to take young female cougars due to population demographics. Such uneven pressure on females is risky for population management, he said.
Dogs tree cougars and give hunters time to identify the sex and age of the cats. Because Fish and Wildlife sets seasonal quotas on how many female and male cougars can be killed, the use of hounds helps balance the harvests, Martorello said.
Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, and Pend Oreille counties were included in the original pilot program. In the extension, Klickitat County requested to opt-in as well. Blake's current bill would allow for similar opt-in requests when cougar populations exceed a community's tolerance.
Hillman said the Humane Society advocates using dogs in a non-lethal way, to teach cougars what areas to avoid, because "we live in a state where cougars are indigenous, where cougars exist with humans."
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, has proposed an amendment to the bill that would only allow for another three-year extension of the pilot program, rather than make it permanent.
With the passage of Initiative 655, "the people clearly said we don't want dogs used to run down creatures. It's always good to check back in," he said.
Blake said his main objective is to restore population management tools to wildlife professionals. Using dogs will also help teach cougars to stay away from urban areas.
"I think I would rather save lives ahead of time and use this program to manage the population and teach cougars that humans and dogs are something they don't want to be around," he said.
Pilot program cougar harvests averaged 42 cats a year, far below the average number of cougars killed in the regular season as game animals.
Cougar kills in livestock and pet depredation circumstances also factor into total harvest, which has been about 200 cats annually since the program began.