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Fish and Wildlife Commission talks human-cougar conflict

UPDATED: Sun., June 27, 2021

A GPS-collared cougar reacts to hounds Feb. 25, 2020, near Colville.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A GPS-collared cougar reacts to hounds Feb. 25, 2020, near Colville. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Washingtonians are deeply divided on cougars.

For some, the cats are a growing public safety issue and a nuisance, preying on livestock and pets. Others say the cougar threat has been exaggerated and government agencies are killing far too many .

As polarizing as cougars are, they continue to remain mysterious even as wildlife and law enforcement agencies throughout the West deal with more cougar concerns.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are hoping a new cougar conflict science review team will help answer important questions and remove some uncertainty about the stealthy cats.

At a Thursday meeting, the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Committee talked with department biologists about the new project’s purpose.

“It’s important to note there isn’t a lot of science,” said Brian Kertson, a carnivore scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There are many more questions than answers for a lot of these issues.”

The science review team, which was formed in March, won’t do any new research, and the report it puts together won’t specifically be used for cougar management strategy.

Instead, the 11 team members will read roughly 100 peer-reviewed cougar research papers and attempt to distill their findings into a concise document that answers eight fundamental cougar conflict questions:

How does hunting impact the number of human-cougar conflicts? Is there a correlation between the number of conflicts and cougar population density? Are there more conflicts when prey abundance increases? Do nonlethal deterrents successfully keep cats away? Do landscape characteristics matter? Does the number of people in an area matter? Are there actually more conflicts than there used to be, or is that just the perception? If wolves or bears are in the area, do cougar conflicts decrease?

“These questions we came up with are questions we get all the time,” WDFW game division manager Anis Aoude said.

In addition to Fish and Wildlife biologists, the science review team includes biologists from Fish and Wildlife sister agencies in Colorado, Oregon and Idaho and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Molly Linville, a Douglas County rancher and one of the Eastern Washington representatives on the commission, said she thinks it’s an excellent idea to have the team pour through the existing cougar conflict scientific literature.

“In my mind, this is really the dream team,” Linville said. “I think this is a really, really good use of time.”

Some commission members, however, expressed doubts about the project.

Fred Koontz, a retired zoologist from King County, questioned the value of re-examining papers that have already been peer-reviewed.

It would be more valuable to assemble a team tasked with providing cougar management recommendations, Koontz said.

Department biologists said they simply hope the report will help better understand the best available cougar science.

“I don’t think we’ll be proving or disproving anything, just adding to our current slate of knowledge,” said Rich Beausoleil, an agency bear and cougar specialist.

Cougar killing

The wildlife committee also delved into the state’s 2020 cougar mortality statistics.

In 2020, hunters harvested 213 cougars. That’s an increase compared to last year, but in line with the figures going back to 2016.

An additional 119 cougars were killed by Fish and Wildlife, local law enforcement agencies, landowners with depredation permits or in vehicle collisions.

The number of cougars killed by law enforcement and Fish and Wildlife has risen significantly in the last few years after holding relatively steady from 2010 to 2017.

During that time, agencies killed about 50 or fewer cougars per year. In 2018, agencies killed more than 100 problem cougars. In the past five years, WDFW and law enforcement agencies have killed more than 80 cougars annually on average.

Hunter harvest has increased at the same time but not as dramatically. During the past five years hunters have taken an average of 204 cougars per year. In the early 2010s, that number was often in the 150 range.

The increase in killings has corresponded with a rise in cougar concerns.

“We do have a safety problem that’s different than it used to be,” said Don McIsaac, a WDFW commissioner from Clark County and a former executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Many Washingtonians believe the safety concerns have been overblown and that just because people are seeing more cougars doesn’t mean they’re a greater threat.

Lorna Smith, one of the commission’s Western Washington representatives and former executive director of Western Wildlife Outreach, said she has concerns about the general framing of the human-cougar conflict debate and worries cougars are perceived to be more dangerous than they are.

“Cougars can be dangerous, but they’re not innately dangerous,” Smith said. “I live with cougars here in my neighborhood.”

WDFW should focus on educating people about how to behave and watch out for their pets in cougar country, Smith said. She said the emphasis shouldn’t be so heavily skewed toward lethal removal.

“A lot of research shows that outreach and education is the best preventative measure (to avoiding conflicts),” Smith said. “Where is the outreach and education?”

Many in Washington disagree and have argued for more lethal removals, not less.

On Thursday, the wildlife committee discussed a proviso that the 2021 Legislature put in the state’s 2022 and 2023 budgets. The proviso comes after a county sheriff in 2019 unilaterally decided to kill more cougars.

In August 2019, Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer announced that his office was going to respond on its own to increasing cougar concerns by forming a posse of deputized hound hunters to track down and kill cougars, bears, bobcats and lynx.

Songer noted that Washington law allows county sheriffs to kill predators in order to protect livestock, pets and people. But many felt Songer was responding to incidents that fell under Fish and Wildlife’s authority.

Since Songer formed the posse, the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office has killed 24 cougars, two bobcats and a bear.

Kessina Lee, Fish and Wildlife’s southwest region director, said Songer has not shared with Fish and Wildlife data on its predator killings. Fish and Wildlife only compiled the accurate tally with the help of a local citizen’s group.

“We’ve been disappointed by the lack of information sharing from the sheriff’s office,” Lee said.

The proviso sets aside $50,000 a year in 2022 and 2023 to help local agencies handle cougar issues. The goal of the proviso is to encourage local law enforcement agencies to work more cooperatively with Fish and Wildlife.

There are strings attached to the money. To be eligible for the dollars, local law enforcement will have to acknowledge WDFW has management authority over cougars. Agencies will also have to share data on how many cougars they kill and they will have to recognize that a cougar’s mere presence on private property does not alone represent a public safety risk.

WDFW Capt. Jeff Wickersham said it’s not clear how the money will be used. That’s up to Fish and Wildlife.

“I think everything is on the table at this point,” he said.

The key question

Fish and Wildlife is putting together a Cougar Working Group. The group will offer advice to Fish and Wildlife on cougar strategies and proposals and will have a diverse makeup, including hunters, ranchers, conservationists, researchers and county representatives. Smith raised a fundamental question during the committee’s discussion of the group, which will be formed this month or in July.

“Are cougars really more dangerous now than they have been in past years?” Smith asked.

It certainly appears that way on the surface, given the rise in sightings, Smith said. But is there a distinction between the perception of cougars being more dangerous and the reality?

That’s a difficult question to answer definitively, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

“In the interactions that we’re seeing, I’ll tell you that at least 95% of what we’re talking about is backyard goats and chickens (being depredated by cougars),” Beausoleil said. “And that’s really where our focus, I think, needs to be.”

Fish and Wildlife section manager Dan Brinson said he thinks human are more responsible for the rise in conflicts than cougars. 

“Has a cougar changed its behavior from how it behaved 35 years ago? Certainly not,” Brinson said. “Cougars are behaving the way they always have, but we need to change how we address these problems to keep up with cultural changes.”

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