May 17, 1997 in Nation/World

Agents Lied - They Meant To Kill Cougar Fish And Wildlife Official Says Incident On South Hill Violated Agency Policies

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Wildlife agents lied when they said they were going to tranquilize and relocate a cougar that wandered onto Spokane’s South Hill earlier this month, an official said Friday.

Agents actually intended to kill the big cat and used the relocation story to assuage the public, said Bruce Smith, Region 1 director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The decision to kill the young mountain lion and the way wildlife agents went about it violated several department policies, said Smith, who launched an investigation shortly after the incident.

Their lying about it exacerbated the situation, he said.

“The fact is we did lie, and in doing so, we violated the public trust,” said Smith, who apologized for his agency’s actions. “There are going to be some consequences.”

Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Ray Kahler, who was in charge on the South Hill that day, is the subject of an internal investigation that could lead to his termination.

Kahler is still on the job pending the outcome of the administrative review. “This was an error in judgment,” Smith said. “There was no criminal act here.”

Kahler, a 20-year veteran of the department who earns more than $48,000 per year, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The incident occurred May 2 when the young mountain lion padded into the city near Manito Park.

Police combed the area looking for the animal for several hours before resident Tina Bjorklund spotted it in a tree in her front yard near 26th Avenue and Tekoa Street.

Police sharpshooters surrounded the tree and waited nearly an hour before wildlife officials and veterinarian Luther McConnell arrived. Fish and Wildlife had hired McConnell to help them handle the animal.

The cat made no effort to come down during the wait and sat on a branch while wildlife officials decided what to do.

After a brief conference with game agents, police told onlookers and the press that the agents were going to tranquilize the cat and take it to the wilderness and let it go.

McConnell then shot the cougar with a tranquilizer dart and the animal fell nearly 40 feet to the ground. It lay there convulsing for several seconds before wildlife agents loaded it into a crate and drove it away.

The veterinarian said at the time it was unlikely the cat was hurt in the fall or harmed by the tranquilizer. “He’ll survive this,” McConnell said.

The truth is Kahler decided the animal was a threat and asked McConnell to use a lethal dose of the drug, Smith said. That’s why agents made no effort to break the animal’s fall, he added.

The dose wasn’t sufficient to kill the cougar, which started to wake up while agents were driving it away. They then decided to release it in Stevens County.

“The animal died later (that afternoon), probably the result of the drug used, capture stress and possibly injuries from the fall,” Smith said in a press release.

Department policy allows agents to kill an animal for only three reasons:

There is an immediate public safety concern.

The animal has preyed on domestic pets or livestock.

The animal has been captured and relocated once before.

“These conditions were not met in this case,” said Smith, who disagreed with Kahler that the cougar was a danger. “I think there is a clear violation of policy here.”

Even if the cat had been a threat, department policy calls for dangerous animals to be killed humanely, and in a private setting. “Frankly, we botched that, too,” Smith said.

McConnell was reluctant to discuss the matter Friday.

“I was just kind of caught in the middle of a tailspin there, and we crashed,” he said. He referred further questions to Fish and Wildlife officials.

Smith said he didn’t fault McConnell, who was just following orders. “We have put him in a no-win situation,” he said. “This is our fault.”

Bjorklund, who had tacked a sign reading “The Puma Ponderosa” on the tree the cougar had climbed, said there is plenty of blame to go around.

“The whole thing pretty well stinks,” she said. “I wondered why they didn’t give him a reversal drug or something like that. Now I have my answer. I don’t like the people I pay taxes to lying to me like that.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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