Stevens County ranchers and residents say they want more authority at the local level when it comes to problem cougars.
About 20 animals have been confirmed as recent cougar kills, rancher Scott Nielsen, president of Stevens County Cattlemen and Cattle Producers of Washington.
“In reality, there are people missing cats and dogs that they don’t know what happened to them — I think it’s in the hundreds of pets missing because of cougars,” he said.
Nielsen said he wants a county sheriff involved in every livestock depredation to provide oversight to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The county sheriff’s primary interest in these interactions is public safety and protecting your property, livestock and pets,” Nielsen said. “WDFW’s primary interest is the welfare of their wildlife.”
“Public safety is our number-one priority,” said Paul Golden, deputy chief of the department’s police in Olympia. “I agree that there’s been some displeasure in people’s perception on how we’ve responded to some calls up there.”
Golden agreed that there’s been an increase in calls about cougars and dangerous wildlife in the area in recent years, while the number of officers has remained the same for 20 years.
“It’s an increased workload for us, so it is a problem,” Golden told the Capital Press.
The agency is reviewing and updating its response policy to dangerous wildlife, which is 15 years old and doesn’t reflect increased populations or human presence in hobby farms or outdoor activities, Golden said.
Nielsen said he appreciates that WDFW director Kelly Susewind is trying to repair fractured relationships with residents, but he believes the message isn’t getting through to regional department representatives.
If a rancher alerts the county sheriff, the sheriff will contact WDFW, but the department does not reciprocate, Nielsen said.
A “predator petition” with 394 signatures was recently presented to Stevens County commissioners and Stevens County Sheriff Brad Manke, asking them to act in the best interest of public safety.
Dee Dee Isaacs, of Chewelah, Wash., was one of the concerned citizens circulating the petition.
Isaacs’ miniature donkey was killed by a cougar in January, she said, and she felt the WDFW representative didn’t give the incident much priority when she reported it.
“We believe it’s just going to be a matter of time before a child will be attacked or an individual who’s not aware of the concerns of having these cougars so used to coming down and around in our neighborhoods,” Isaacs said.
Nielsen said the rancher organizations will continue to work with county officials.
“When there’s a problem cougar, I want to see the best effort to eliminate that problem cat,” he said. “What’s happening right now is WDFW is attempting, and failing.”
Of particular concern is the department’s reliance on use of a houndsman and dogs from Spokane to track cougars.
Ranchers would prefer the county sheriff’s dogs be used. Necessary time is lost while the tracker and dogs travel into the area, Nielsen said.
Golden said department employees are also residents of the area and part of the community and share ranchers’ concerns.
Increased authority on the county level would likely complicate things in the short term, Golden said.
“Our officers have been doing this for a long time and have a system in place,” he said. “I know there’s frustration in the area that that system’s not being effective, I totally understand that.”
Golden said he’s spoken with several residents to separate “fact from legend” in the area. He most wants to ensure that the county and department are not duplicating efforts, he said.
The county has seen some improvements from WDFW responding to cougar calls and taking appropriate actions, Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said.
“That doesn’t mean we’re letting our guard down,” McCart said. “We’re keeping all options on the table.”