OLYMPIA — The Humane Society of the United States has endorsed letting vetted hound handlers pursue cougars to stay sharp for when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife needs dogs to track a big cat menacing people or livestock.
Senate Bill 5320 would heighten scrutiny of the handlers used by the state. In exchange, handlers who pass muster could take their dogs out and trail cougars under a training program overseen by Fish and Wildlife.
Dan Paul, the Humane Society’s Washington state director, said he wants hound handlers to pass criminal background checks and perhaps be subjected to checks on how they’re treating their dogs. “Absolutely, I would like that, 100 percent. I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” Paul said.
SB 5320 and the identical House Bill 1516 are intended to keep a cadre of dogs capable of tracking troublesome cougars in a state that banned hound hunting in 1996. The legislation emerged from talks between Fish and Wildlife, animal-welfare advocates and hound handlers.
Hounds and their handlers tracked 80 cougars for the department in 2018, Fish and Wildlife Capt. Jeff Wickersham said. Most notably, a hound handler found a cougar that killed one mountain biker and mauled another east of Seattle in May. Fish and Wildlife shot the cougar.
Hound handler Buddy Woodberry of Yacolt in southwest Washington said he takes his dogs to Oregon, where they can practice pursuing bobcats.
Young dogs need to learn, while experienced dogs need to keep in shape, he said.
“That’s the only way we have to have a dog that’s halfway capable,” he said.
Hound handlers say that they want to let their dogs sniff and follow cougar scent, even if they never find the cat. As it stands now, a pup that smells a cougar gets told to back off. “It’s really confusing for the dog,” Woodberry said.
Handlers also say the training will help ensure a supply of hounds and handlers.
“I think there are enough of us. Right now, we’re OK, but down the road — dog food is expensive. There has to be an incentive to stay in it,” said hound handler Greg Jones of Elma.
If the bills pass as they are now, Fish and Wildlife would write rules for vetting handlers. At a minimum, the department would check criminal records.
In another plus for the Humane Society, the bill would give the Fish and Wildlife Commission more leeway in not using dogs to pursue one or more cougars in areas with public-safety problems. The law currently says the commission “shall” authorize using dogs when there is no practical alternative. The bill would change “shall” to “may.”