Washington Cougar population appears up despite eased regs

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Cougar population appears up despite eased hunting rules.

Ericka Pizzillo, The Bellingham Herald

Hunters in Washington are killing more cougars because of less restrictive state rules despite a 1996 state initiative that banned the use of hounds to hunt the large cats, according to figures from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In 1998 and 1999 hunters killed 505 cougars statewide, according to the most recent figures available. In 1995 and 1996 hunters killed 461.

Despite the increased success in hunting, Fish and Wildlife officials say the cougar population appears to be increasing, possibly because of the increase in their main food supply -- deer.

Scientists estimate between 2,500 and 4,000 cougars live in the state, although the number is difficult to determine because of cougars' elusive nature in the wild. No one knows how many cougars are in Whatcom County, said local Fish and Wildlife Officer Troy McCormick.

State and wildlife officials have been fielding complaints of cougars attacking livestock and family pets. Even though attacks on humans are rare, two years ago a 4-year-old boy was pounced on by a cougar in Kettle Falls. The boy needed 200 stitches. It was one of only four attacks on humans in the 1990s.

The only fatal cougar attack in the state happened in 1924 in Okanagon County.

In 2000, the state Legislature voted to allow limited cougar hunting with hounds in problem areas, where cougars attacked pets and livestock, partially overriding the initiative approved by voters. But state wildlife officials are now hearing complaints that despite the new rules, the cougar problems in the state are still rising because of the stiff regulations around the permits.

Increased sightings of cougars throughout the state, specifically problems in Eastern Washington, have prompted a call for more hound hunting of cougars in the state, which some people say is the only way to effectively hunt down the cats, also known as mountain lions.

In Whatcom County, there were 15 confirmed sightings of cougars in 2000 and 19 so far this year. All the sightings are in residential areas on the eastern edge of Bellingham and populated areas in the county, places where cougars wouldn't naturally use as territory.

Friday, in Cle Elum, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider new rules that could expand the number of special permits allowed by the Legislature to hunt cougars with hounds.

Only 23 cougars were killed in the state this year with the use of hounds, despite 74 permits issued to hound hunters. Each hound hunter is allowed to take just one cougar under a permit.

In Whatcom County, only two cougars were killed this year, despite four permits issued to hound hunters here.

"The problem is if (a hunter) and his hounds are really good at hunting cougars, they're only allowed to take one," said Madonna Luers, spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife department.

In addition, for an area to be open to hound hunting, state wildlife officials would need at least four reports of encounters of humans, pets or livestock with wildlife and at least seven cougar sitings in an area where people reside -- a total of 11 reports.

But people in rural areas, especially in Eastern Washington, rarely report sightings, Luers said. So even if there were 11 reported close encounters with cougars, a hound-hunting permit would not be issued for the area, Luers said.

"It was a numbers game," Luers said. "And it didn't work."

On Friday, the commission will consider allowing permitted hound hunters to kill more than one cat and change how hound-hunting areas are determined.

Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, said he isn't opposed to some tweaking of the law, if necessary. But Friedman said the initiative already allowed hound hunting of problem cougars that which come too close to homes or attack pets and livestock.

Friedman, who was a proponent of the 1996 initiative, said the wholesale reduction of the state's cougar population could actually cause more problems.

When the population of food supply, such as deer, is high, and more territory is available to cougars because hunting has artificially decreased their population, female cougars naturally producer larger litters, Friedman said.

"When you're controlling the population more, there will be more reproducing," Friedman said.

Friedman said members of his organization are also concerned about the effects of hound hunting on other wildlife, which are disturbed by the chases the dogs initiate. And Friedman said hounds sometimes follow the trail through private land, disturbing landowners and children.

Friedman said his personal opinion is that hound hunting is distasteful because the frightened cougars are chased into trees and shot.

"It's like shooting an apple in a barrel," he said.

Sumas hound hunter Roger Kraght said he's noticed more cougar sightings in the county because more people have moved into the valley east of Interstate 5. Kraght said male cougars stake out large territories. As the numbers of cougars increase, they push the next generation of cats into areas populated by humans, he said.

Kraght, who hunts cougar and raccoon with four Plott hounds, said targeting problem cougars, as allowed under the initiative, is difficult if not impossible because cougars have such large territories and individual cougars are tough to target. Kraght favors an overall reduction of the population and a reopening of hunting with hounds.

"The initiative should be reversed," Kraght said. "There's nothing that is a predator of a cougar. They are at the top of the food chain. And the only way to be successful hunting them is with hounds."

Yet hunters are being successful hunting the animal, even if they set out to kill a bear or elk initially.

Lt. Steve Dauma, a problem wildlife specialist with the state, said the increase in "boot" hunting of cougars (hunting without hounds) could be attributed to the changes made to cougar hunting permits and seasons after the 1996 initiative.

Non-hound hunters no longer need a special permit to shoot a cougar, Dauma said. Cougars are now part of a general hunting permit for elk, bear and deer, so hunters often kill cougars when they are hunting for other animals.

The cougar season has been lengthened from one month in October to nearly eight months starting in August, giving hunters more time to find cougars.

Even with public concern about cougars, Luers said state wildlife officials take incidents seriously when cougars come into heavily populated areas or are seen around schools.

"If it's a public safety issue, we get on it right away," Luers said.

Reach Ericka Pizzillo at epizzill@bellingh.gannett.com or call 715-2266.
 
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