Agency sics hounds on cougars

Associated Press and Herald staff

Cougars will be hunted again in Snohomish County.

State wildlife officials approved rules Friday to let hunters use dogs to track and kill cougars, in response to public concern over recent cougar sightings and attacks across the state.

Under the rules approved Friday, the Department of Fish and Wildlife will conduct a lottery to issue permits for the killing of as many as 74 cougars, primarily in the Puget Sound region and in Spokane, Pend Oreille, Walla Walla and Chelan counties.

About a dozen of those permits will be issued in Snohomish County.

The practice was virtually banned when voters passed a 1996 initiative to prohibit hound-hunting of cougars and bear baiting. But the Legislature revised the initiative this year to allow a limited number of dog-assisted cougar hunts.

It was the job of the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission to create rules for the hunts — and it wasn’t an easy task.

Animal-welfare activists who backed the initiative in 1996 criticized the Legislature and the commission for opening the door to "trophy hunts."

But legislators and citizens, especially in rural areas, said the state needed new rules to protect children and livestock from a growing cougar population.

"Emotions were high on both sides of it," said Commission Chairman Kelly White, after the new rules passed by a 5-4 vote. "I certainly hope it leads to a reduction in cougar-human conflicts, especially cougar-human attacks."

No one has died from a cougar attack in Washington since 1924, though two small children were injured in attacks in Eastern Washington in 1998 and 1999.

Because cougars are so elusive, hunters using dogs have a much better chance. The dogs track and chase a cougar into a tree, and then hunters shoot the big cat.

The 1996 initiative had authorized state wildlife officials to use hounds to track and kill "problem" cougars. Last year, officials killed about 20 that way. And citizens could still hunt cougars without dogs. But the Legislature decided that wasn’t enough.

Before any hunt takes place, the new rules require state wildlife workers to confirm four human-cougar "safety incidents" or pet and livestock attacks in one area, and to confirm at least seven cougar sightings in the area.

A permit lottery will be scheduled between Oct. 27 and Nov. 17.

Lisa Wathne, who sponsored the 1996 initiative and now works for the Humane Society of the United States, said the new rules won’t make the public any safer from cougars.

"It’s a trophy hunt, plain and simple," Wathne said. She said killing random cougars in certain areas, as the rules allow, won’t stop so-called "problem" cougars from attacking people, pets or wildlife.

Commissioners heard three hours of testimony from both sides on Sept. 16 in Wenatchee, and then debated among themselves for two hours on Friday.

The commission approved several last-minute changes to the rules, including a requirement that hunters kill the first cougar that their dogs chase up a tree — an attempt to discourage trophy hunting.

"It’s not blowing wide open cougar hunting in the state of Washington," said Ed Owens of the Hunters Heritage Council, who supported the partial repeal of the cougar hunting initiative. "The first cougar they tree, they have to take it. That is not a trophy hunt."

The commission rejected a last-minute amendment to lower the number of cougars killed per year from 74 to 50. The total cougar population in the state is estimated at about 2,500.

The commission will return to the rules and revise them if needed next year.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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