OLYMPIA – These adolescent males can be trouble. They wander around, get into fights on hostile turf, bother people just trying to mind their own business.
The experts don’t always agree on the best way to handle these problem teens. Should we hunt them down with dogs, and shoot more of them or fewer?
Adolescent cougars, carnivores from the species puma concolor, have for years been a point of contention because of their potential for increased confrontation with humans.
An agreement struck this week between a major environmental group and an Eastern Washington legislator could be a truce in the long-running fight over hunting cougars with dogs, and lead to better state management of the big cats that some see as an icon of the West and others see as a hazard to people and livestock.
Conservation Northwest, one of the sponsors of a 1996 initiative that banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars and several other species, announced Wednesday it was dropping its opposition to a bill that allows that type of hunting in a handful of northeastern counties.
Mitch Friedman, executive director of the environmental group, said it agrees with state Rep. Joel Kretz on some changes to rules that should lead to fewer cougars being hunted and more controls over how the big cats are taken each year. They also agree to bring together researchers who have been studying the large carnivores for years, and work out some of the conflicts over interpreting their studies.
“You get pretty conflicting perspectives from most of this,” Friedman said. “It’s easy to get caught up in one perspective or another.”
Some of the sharpest conflicts were clear in debates over Senate Bill 5356, which would extend a 2004 pilot program that allows the hunting of cougars with dogs in five northeastern counties from Chelan to Pend Oreille. It passed the Senate early this month with bipartisan support and cleared the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last week, but not without strong opposition from environmental groups.
A key point of contention was whether or not increased hunting of cougars – with or without dogs – lessens or heightens the chances of the big cats attacking livestock or pets, or otherwise coming in contact with people in rural or suburban areas.
Robert Wielgus, director of Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab, says more than 10 years of work tracking cougars indicates that losses of livestock to cougars go up in heavily hunted areas: “It’s counterintuitive and hard for people to swallow.”
One reason could be cougars’ social structure, in which an adult male establishes dominance in his territory. If that dominant male is killed, by hunting or by natural causes, younger males on the periphery move in.
“They’re younger and they don’t know what they’re doing. They haven’t established their territory, they’re wandering all over the place,” Wielgus said. That can cause them to wander into farm and ranch lands or suburbs that older males have learned to avoid.
It’s not the way cougars are hunted that creates these problems, but the numbers the state Department of Fish and Wildlife allows to be hunted, he added. “I’m neither for nor against hound hunting.”
Kretz, R-Wauconda, a strong supporter of SB 5356, doesn’t buy all the theories about so-called teen cougars being at the root of the problem. “I don’t know what conclusions you reach about older cougars providing stability. They’re not mentoring the young males (found in their territory); they’re killing them.” And if young males are pushed to the fringes of the dominant cat’s territory, those could be the very areas that border farms and ranches, he added.
But Kretz does believe cougars are being overhunted in Washington, in part as a result of the 1996 initiative that banned hunting the big carnivores, as well as bears and bobcats, with hounds. Outside of the five northeastern Washington counties in the pilot program for hound hunting, cougars are still hunted, often by sportsmen who purchase a cougar tag in a package with a deer and elk tag.
So-called “boot hunters” are willing to spend an extra $10 for a cougar tag just in case they encounter one while hunting other game, he said: “Typically, when an area is heavily hunted, it’s boot hunters.”
Hound hunters are often working areas closer to farms and ranches, after hearing complaints about problem cougars from residents, and usually get a better look at their prey before shooting, he said. Boot hunters are more likely to be in the back country where the big cats are farther away from people or livestock.
Friedman agrees that hound-hunting is a more selective way to control the cougar population. That isn’t what he expected when the initiative outlawing hound-hunting passed in 1996, but it’s the way things worked out.
But cutting back on boot-hunting could create financial problems for the Fish and Wildlife Department, which sells some 66,000 cougar tags a year, Friedman and Kretz said. Even at the current rate of $10, that’s more than a half million dollars in revenue at a time when all state departments are seeing their money from the general fund shrinking.
As part of the agreement, the department could raise the tag to $20, which may cut the number sold and cougars killed in areas outside the northeastern counties, but bring in about the same revenue.
Higher penalties for poachers and a conference to discuss the different perspectives on cougar research are also part of the agreement, while the pilot program continues five more years, Friedman said. Stopping the pilot program would be a “shock to the system,” he added: “I don’t think we want to trigger a war, even though this is not our ideal form of cougar management.”