Big cat hunt comes down to the dogs

Cougar lottery’s chancy if hounds aren’t in shape for the task, officials say

By JANICE PODSADA

Herald Writer

Hound hunters and their dogs entered in a state lottery to win one of 68 cougar killing permits may not be up for the hunt.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say they are worried that dogs used to track and tree cougars are inexperienced or out of practice, and could run amok, posing a threat to humans and livestock.

"Most of the good hound hunters have either left the state or gone out of the hunting business," said Capt. Bill Hebner with the wildlife agency.

Hound hunting is considered the most efficient way to round up and dispatch the elusive cats.

Hound hunters who relocated to Idaho and other western states to pursue their sport also say that experienced hound hunters in Washington are in short supply.

When the tracking and killing of cougars with dogs was banned in 1996 by Initiative 655, about half the state’s 700 hound hunters left the state to hunt elsewhere. The majority who have remained haven’t gone hunting since, Hebner said.

"There has been no season to run them — their dogs are inexperienced," he said.

Their lack of experience could give rise to potential hunter-homeowner conflicts, Hebner said.

"You don’t want dogs running out on the freeway or chasing livestock," he said.

And animal activists say they’re concerned that inexperienced hounds could needlessly terrorize the big cats, making the hunt inhumane.

Lisa Wathne, state field representative for the Humane Society of the United States, doesn’t agree with the Legislature’s decision to reinstate a limited hound hunting season.

"We’re never going to say hound hunting is okay," Wathne said.

But now that the hunt is scheduled, the dogs should know what to do, Wathne said.

"With experienced hunters, not only is the kill going to be more clean and humane, but the chase is going to be as short as possible. To us, the most objectionable part of hound hunting is the chase," she said.

Eleanor Sewell, secretary of the Washington State Hound Council in Olympia, said there are enough experienced hound hunters in the state.

"But you might have some inexperienced dogs or old dogs," she said.

"There’re more hound hunters than they have permits for," she added.

But the number of permits is meaningless unless hound hunters can secure a permit in the lottery, said John Sewell, council president.

"The problem with the lottery system is that a lot of people that don’t even have dogs are going to get these permits," he said.

"If a nonhound hunter gets one of the permits, he’s going to have to find a hound hunter to use the permit."

One of those hound hunters is Ed Mahany of Enumclaw. The Department of Wildlife has hired him to track problem cougars in the Mill Creek area in the past.

Mahany has not applied for a cougar permit, but he said he is willing to take permit holders hunting for the elusive cats.

His experience may prove invaluable. While Mahany has tracked cougars recently, other hound hunters have not gone hunting of late.

Some have been able to take their dogs to Idaho or Oregon to hunt cougar, but others have had to rely on field trials to keep their hounds in training.

In field trials, the dogs are trained to sniff out and track bottled cougar scent, hunter John Sewell said.

Experienced hound hunters typically hunt with five to eight highly trained dogs. But since hound hunting was banned, an experienced dog has been difficult to come by.

"One of our problems is keeping the dogs in tune," Sewell said.

Like sled dogs, each hound has its own job, Hebner explained.

"You need a good strike dog to get the scent. You need tracking dogs, a good treeing dog.

"Just because they have a pedigree doesn’t mean anything; they have to have the experience and have proven themselves," he said.

Wildlife officials will issue the 68 permits sometime this month. Hunters receiving a permit will be eligible to kill one cougar during the season, which runs Dec. 16 through March 15.

According to state law, hunters must use hounds that are "capable of detecting and tracking cougar," said Don Martorello, bear and cougar section manager with Fish and Wildlife in Olympia.

But what constitutes a capable dog isn’t spelled out.

"That gets fuzzy," Martorello said.

Eight permits will be issued to hunters in Snohomish County.

But here, as elsewhere, the number of hunters with experienced hounds can be counted on one hand.

"In this region, we have probably four hound hunters that still have good hounds," Hebner said.

Wildlife officials rely on those hunters and their dogs to remove problem cougars often in populated areas.

The majority of the permits will be issued to hunters in lowland areas, where people, livestock and cougars have increasingly come in contact.

"The potential for problems is increased, but not to the level where we wouldn’t do this," Hebner said of the scheduled hunt.

A surge in the cougar population has forced many of the animals out of their usual mountain habitat and into "marginal" populated areas, said Capt. John Broome with the Fish and Wildlife enforcement program.

Because hound hunters may venture into these areas, they will be required to view a short educational video, the purpose of which is to remind them "this is not a wide-open cougar hunting season," Broome said.

"This is a limited endeavor, and to be respectful of property rights," he said.

Broome expects the hunt to go on without a hitch.

"The biggest problem of having inexperienced hounds is that they can’t locate cougar," he said.

But Wathne of the Humane Society disagrees.

"With inexperienced dogs how can you ensure that these hunts happen in the quickest, safest, most humane way possible?" she said.

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