Mr. Ward Halcomb made some unsubstantiated claims in his guest editorial (“Cougar numbers too high”) on June 16. I would like to address them.
Wolves, cougars and bears play key roles in ecosystem health, keeping deer and elk populations in check, benefiting plant species and, by redistributing nutrients, providing food for a number of other species.
To claim carnivores are decimating deer and elk populations is counter to the best available science. Carnivore presence is “re-wilding” deer and elk, contributing to the perception of fewer wild ungulates. Carnivore populations self-regulate and do not require hunting or trapping seasons to “manage” their numbers. They cannot outgrow the prey base they need to survive.
A report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on June 11, titled “Plans to Address At-Risk Ungulate Populations,” presented by the ungulate section manager at WDFW, used this to define at-risk ungulate populations: “… any ungulate population which falls 25% below its population objective for two consecutive years or if the harvest decreases by 25% below the 10-year average harvest for two consecutive years.”
The report showed no zones meeting criteria for an at-risk population for white-tailed deer, the primary prey of cougars; two zones in south-central Washington are at risk for mule deer; and three elk herds in southwest Washington and one in southeast Washington have at-risk populations – all due to reasons other than carnivores.
There was a decline in white-tailed deer harvest, the metric used to calculate populations, in 2016 following the 2015 drought and wildfires. Harvest numbers were down in 2019 due to WDFW, with hunter support, eliminating recreational antlerless harvest in several game management units. In 2018, that accounted for 943 deer. If similar opportunities existed in 2019, harvest would have been higher. Even without antlerless harvest, the harvest numbers in 2019 were 86% of the harvest numbers in 2018. Eastern Washington actually observed a slight increase in buck harvest in 2019.
For mule deer, five zones are currently not at risk. Following the drought and wildfires of 2015 and a hard winter in 2016, two zones met at-risk criteria in 2017 and 2018. These populations have increased since, due to reduced antlerless harvest. Both effected regions are in Central Washington, not northeast Washington, and both are impacted by hair loss syndrome and one has documented adenovirus.
Cougar predation is the leading cause of deer mortality in most years, as we should expect due to the coevolution of the two species. Malnutrition was the leading cause of mortality in 2015 and a close second to cougar mortality in each year documented. Without carnivores keeping deer populations in check, loss of deer to malnutrition would be higher due to increased competition for resources.
Elk populations are at objective throughout the state with the exception of southwest Washington where hoof rot disease has been a factor . Predation was noted as not being a key factor in these elk herd population declines. There are no documented wolf packs in southwest Washington; nature relies on carnivores like wolves hunting together to take down larger animals like elk to prevent the spread of debilitating diseases in the herd. The Blue Mountain herd in southeast Washington was noted as being 16% below objective, but parts of that herd spend time in Oregon and were not counted.
The WDFW Ungulate Assessment in 2017 covering white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Roosevelt elk, bighorn sheep and moose found, “Using the data at our disposal, none of the ungulate populations in this assessment appear to show clear signs of being limited by predation.”
Are there fewer deer and elk to hunt? The agency tasked with keeping track of those numbers – dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities – has scientific data that says no.
I agree with Mr. Halcomb, there is nothing more free-range organic than wild ungulate meat. Humans have been hunting and gathering for 2 million years and farming for 5,000-10,000 years. Both offer unique opportunities to be responsible for our food and reawaken our connection to the land; hunting offers a chance to understand the true cost of eating meat.
To coexist with each other and local wildlife, we must maintain healthy populations of plants and animals and find balance between a growing human population and diminishing resources. Carnivores on the landscape help restore that balance.
Chris Bachman is a biologist and the Wildlife Program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council.
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