Counting cougars

Washington Fish and Wildlife Assistant Director Eric Gardner, left, and Director Kelly Susewind talk before a presentation on cougars Dec. 4 in Olympia to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

OLYMPIA — A Washington lawmaker says he will introduce a bill authorizing hound hunters to practice chasing cougars.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake said he wants hound hunters, who track troublesome cougars for Fish and Wildlife, to stay sharp and at the same time make the big cats fear humans and dogs.

"The hope is that cougars would learn to avoid humans and dogs. They may hear a Chihuahua yapping and decide to go somewhere else," said Blake, D-Aberdeen. "They wouldn't be allowed to hunt cougars. They'd be allowed to train their dogs so they'd be available for the department."

Washington voters in 1996 banned using hounds to hunt for cougars, as well as black bears, bobcats and lynxes. Fish and Wildlife, however, still relies on houndsmen to tree and dispatch cougars that are killing domestic animals or threatening public safety.

Fish and Wildlife called on a hound hunter to quickly track down the healthy cougar that killed a 32-year-old mountain biker in May east of Seattle. The cyclist was the first person killed in the U.S. by a cougar man since a 55-year-old man was killed in 2008 in New Mexico. In September, a 55-year-old woman was killed by a cougar in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.

Fish and Wildlife calculates there are 2,300 adult cougars in Washington, plus another 1.050 kittens. Blake said he believes there are more cougars. Other rural lawmakers also say they've been hearing from constituents who are seeing more cougars. In Kelso, a middle school football game was canceled because a cougar was reported near the school.

In response, Fish and Wildlife held several public meetings in southwest Washington this fall. A meeting in Stevenson on protecting livestock, pets and humans drew about 35 people.

"I think the cats are getting more brazen," Klickitat County rancher Keith Kreps said Wednesday. "They're getting thick."

Kreps has urged lawmakers to loosen the prohibition on using hounds to pursue cougars in a handful of counties, including Klickitat County.

"We've talked until we're blue in the face," he said. "I'm all for at least getting (hound handlers) out there in the woods to tree them."

Wildlife biologists say counting cougars is impossible. Studies suggest, however, that there are an average of 2.2 adult cougars per 100 square kilometers (about 39 square miles) of habitat. Cougars can be found throughout Washington, except in bigger cities and large tracts of Eastern Washington farmland, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Fish and Wildlife doesn't know whether the cougar population is actually increasing, or it's just public perception, Assistant Director for Wildlife Eric Gardner said.

"We don't have a great way to answer that directly," he said. "If you're near deer, it's probably reasonable to think there are more cougars."

Fish and Wildlife estimates there are 2,000 adult cougars inhabiting land under the state's jurisdiction. The other cougars are on tribal land or in national parks. The department says 12 to 16 percent could be harvested each year without reducing the population. Hunters are taking less than 10 percent, according to the department.

That doesn't necessarily mean the population is growing, Gardner told the agriculture committee at a meeting Tuesday.

"Cougars for the most part auto-regulate their numbers. They're territorial. They're prey dependent," he said. "There's only so much space."


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