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Washington Wildlife Commission Faces Second Round of Predator Hunting Regulation Debate

Thayne Muthler

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is faced with a serious debate on regulations pertaining to predator hunting for the second time in a few years.

Approval of Prescriptive Resolution

At last week's Olympia meeting, the majority of the nine-member panel that determines policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife rejected the appeals of a minority group and approved a prescriptive resolution that instructs agency representatives to draft new laws for cougar hunting.

Proposed Changes to Cougar Hunting Regulations

The motion directs the agency's staff to obtain a proposed rule that would limit hunter harvest, safety measures, and livestock removals to no more than 13% of the estimated mountain lion population, and establish a single cougar season running from September 1 to March 31. But by September 1st of the following year, at the very least, this method would allow cougar hunting regions where they have already eliminated 13% or more of the predicted population through control measures to open and run until the population reaches twenty percent (20%).

Current Season Structure and Concerns

The season is currently divided into two parts: September through December, and if quotas are possible, January through April. The hunting quotas do not include cougars that have been eliminated due to concerns for livestock attacks or public safety. The minority members asked their fellow commissioners to wait a year, citing agency wildlife managers' comments that the population doesn't appear to be in immediate danger. They said that waiting would put them at ease and foster more public trust.

Although exact cougar population monitoring is difficult, the department bases its created population control units on a mean density of 2.3 cougars per 100 square kilometers. According to agency scientists, we may remove between 10% and 16% of the total population annually without upsetting the social structure within cougar groups. They also claim that this stability begins to break down when removals reach levels between 16% and 27%.

The commission made this modification in 2014 in response to a request by regional public officials in northeastern Washington to reduce limits and restrictions on cougar hunting. This shift, in addition to killing cougars to protect public safety or minimize livestock losses, results in eradication rates in certain places exceeding 27 percent.

Hunting typically only results in a small portion of the removals. According to what they said, the populace doesn't appear to need an emergency response. Take rates in some regions, however, may jeopardize the goal of establishing a stable population social structure.

Controversial Motion for Delay

A motion introduced by Commissioner Jim Anderson would have delayed changes to cougar hunting until the 2025 season in accordance with a planned amendment to the state's Game Management Plan.

"I view this as merely a deliberate, methodical approach. It might include everyone, depict everything in detail, and be objective.

Despite the support of commissioners Molly Linville, John Lehmkuhl, and Steve Parker, the motion could have been more successful. Woody Myers, Tim Ragen, Lorna Smith, Melanie Rowland, and Commissioner Barbara Baker were against it.

Ultimately, they settled on a choice made by Baker to replace a comparable one made by Ragen. Supporters said that reducing hunts would eliminate risk.

"It is my belief that we should be more cautious, take more preventative action, and strive to maintain a healthy population of cougars," Ragen said.

However, Linville, a member of the Seattle City Council, contended that the commission was not afforded sufficient time to consider this motion. She claimed to have seen it only last night. She cautioned that pressing it through will exacerbate internal conflict within our group and further erode public confidence.

Tensions and Director's Response

It was once decided to eliminate the state's spring black bear hunting season, which caused tensions between the commission and its stakeholders. The hunters, a traditional group involved in wildlife management, were offended by this conduct and perceived it as a breach of their trust. However, many opposed to hunting as well as those battling for animal rights were in favor.

“For the first time, I’m going to really understand why the public doesn’t trust us,” Linville said during last week’s meeting. “I just got completely disregarded when I shared that there are four of us that aren’t comfortable and you just steamrolled us.”

The department's head, Kelly Susewind, stated that the motion is quite thorough and that historically, the commission has given the department more latitude in proposing rules. Smith, the Commissioner, attempted to cut him off by claiming that it was a commission discussion.

Susewind persisted, noting Smith's frequent interruptions and the fact that Chairperson Baker acknowledged Smith's authority to speak for the agency they manage.

“This is part of the problem,” Susewind said. “You are trying to go your direction despite where the agency wants to go and if we don’t say what you want to hear, you don’t want to hear from us.”

Baker mentioned that the agency and commissioners have ample time to consider this proposal. He also said that once the rule-making process is completed, any regulations pertaining to cougar hunting will likely change significantly.

“I don’t think we will finish with anything that looks like this,” she said.

With Linville abstaining and Lehmkuhl, Parker, and Anderson voting against the proposal, the vote was 5-3-1 in favor of the amendment. The majority of commissioners expressed their hope to finish the regulatory process by September 1.