For state Rep. Joel Kretz, the clash between ranchers and cougars is more than an abstract battleground. Kretz is a rancher, as are many of his 7th District constituents.
And if he thinks a 1996 state initiative that prohibited using hounds to hunt cougars was inspired by romantic idealism, he’s entitled. He’s experienced 20 or more cougar attacks on his property in Okanogan County. He’s had colts and dogs killed.
Yet there he is, sitting down with Conservation Northwest, an environmental group that supported Initiative 655, trying to develop compromise legislation that will serve his interests, theirs and the state’s. That’s rare in this time of political polarization.
Rare and welcome.
One of the best things this constructive approach could produce is a commitment to finding scientifically sound data about a variety of wildlife management questions that thus far have defied clear answers. There’s even disagreement, for example, about whether hunting with dogs reduces or increases cougar populations.
His personal experiences aside, Kretz has conceded that cougars are overhunted in the state. Meanwhile, Conservation Northwest, in the pursuit of a realistic compromise, has withdrawn its opposition to another five-year extension of a pilot program that allows some use of hounds to hunt cougars in Ferry, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Okanogan and Chelan counties.
The pilot program, first approved in 2004, was supposed to last three years but has been extended twice already, evidence that the issue is more complex than it once seemed. But maybe the years spent on the issue, in the field as well as in the Legislature, are helping to bridge the philosophical divides that lie along the Cascade ridge.
It’s not that there isn’t urban density in Eastern Washington – or cougar habitat in Western Washington – but issues like this accentuate the lifestyle contrasts between different regions of this state.
Many of the residents of Kretz’s district see a clear connection between the cougar issue and their livelihoods, if not their lives. To them, using dogs in response to cougar encounters with people, pets or livestock is a reasonable way to deal with documented problems.
But it’s also important to preserve Washington’s ecological heritage, including natural predators that may be threatened less by hounds than by hunters who pursue elk and deer but bag cougars if a chance presents itself.
If Kretz and Conservation Northwest can set suspicion aside and recognize the validity of each other’s concerns, they may produce more than reasonable legislation. They may come up with an antidote to the political toxin that’s become so prevalent.