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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Sophia Ressler: Washington’s cougar-hunting increase won’t improve public safety

Sophia Ressler

Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission recently voted 6-3 to allow cougars to be killed at the highest levels in five years. It’s the latest misguided decision by a commission that continues to ignore science – even the guidelines of its own Fish and Wildlife Department – in favor of allowing hunters to kill more animals than their populations can reasonably withstand.

The nine-member commission considered four proposals introduced in February. All were weighted far too heavily in favor of hunters. None allowed for the state to continue with its status quo on annual cougar-hunting permits.

When these options were first introduced, conservation advocates urged the commission to reject them and work with rules already in place to achieve more sustainable cougar management.

But commissioners increased the number of allowed adult cougar kills by as much as 13%. They also authorized hunters to kill an unlimited number of juvenile cougars while the season is open in each licensed area. This will disrupt cougar populations and could even increase conflicts with these normally reclusive animals.

Our state has nearly doubled its population since 1980, and suburban expansion into mountain lion habitat has made increased interaction with these big cats inevitable. The commission’s decision was likely influenced by the two attacks that occurred in Washington since 2018, including the first fatal attack in more than a century.

The state is right to take public concerns about these incidents seriously. But scientists have found that hunting cougars actually increases conflicts by creating a population composed of more young males, which are more likely to prey on livestock and cause other problems. Instead, numerous non-lethal techniques like fencing and motion-sensing lights can be used to keep cougars away.

Prior to the recent change, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s cougar hunting quota was set at 12%-16% of the population for the majority of the year. As outlined in the department’s own 2015-2021 Game Management Plan, one reason for these quotas was to ensure that the gender and age structure in the state’s cougar population stays in balance.

The new plan to kill more cougars increases the risk of a state population composed mainly of trouble-prone younger cats.

Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission needs to follow the sound, on-the-ground evidence from its own biologists. It should stop allowing the fate of its iconic native wildlife to be placed in the hands of private hunters.

Gov. Jay Inslee made an important step in the right direction in October, when he called on the department to rein in its killing of wolves and focus instead on finding non-lethal solutions for conflicts between the animals and livestock.

As with cougars, the department has preferred to kill wolves while ignoring the science showing that method’s ineffectiveness. Inslee and other officials should call for the department to follow similar guidelines with cougars.

There are better ways to live alongside these majestic big cats. In April the California Fish and Game Commission voted 5-0 to advance Southern California and Central Coast mountain lions to candidacy under the state’s Endangered Species Act. There the state has recognized that the swell of development into cougar habitats is problematic for the species and threatens its future survival.

Here in Washington, the commission’s latest vote has dimmed the future of our mountain lions. Commissioners should take a hard look at the science and rethink these changes to better manage cougars in the state.

Sophia Ressler is a staff attorney and Washington wildlife advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.