A Central Washington sheriff has sworn in hound handlers to pursue cougars and black bears, saying he expects his office to be quicker and more aggressive in responding to dangerous animals than the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer said he’s heard increasing concerns from ranchers and others about predators.
Since the sheriff took charge of chasing predators last last month, a cougar seen in a field with cattle was chased and euthanized, a livestock-protection measure Songer said he doubts Fish and Wildlife would have taken.
“We don’t have to wait for a killing,” he said. “I feel very strongly that prevention is better than waiting for something to happen.”
Fish and Wildlife’s chief law enforcement officer, Steve Bear, said he understands the sheriff has a duty to protect the public. He cautioned, however, against using hounds too freely.
In the Pacific Northwest, people expect tolerance toward wildlife, he said.
“Generally, if a cougar has not killed livestock, we do not euthanize the animal,” Bear said. “If we ran dogs every time we got a report about a cougar around livestock, the public would take us to task, rightfully so.”
Using dogs to hunt cougars is banned in Washington, but wildlife managers can summon hound handlers to track and dispatch problem cougars. Previously, the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office relied on Fish and Wildlife to do that.
State law, however, also gives sheriffs authority to use dogs to remove cougars, black bears, bobcats or lynx to protect livestock, pets, property or people. A rancher recently brought that to his attention, Songer said.
“Otherwise, I would have launched this project much sooner,” he said. “My intent is to maintain a good working relationship with the wildlife department. However, the sheriff’s office, under this program, will be in charge.
“I feel very strongly that this program will benefit public safety, and certainly be a big help to farmers and ranchers, and people who have domestic pets.”
Klickitat County rancher Keith Kreps said bears and cougars are a growing threat to livestock and people. The problem needs a stronger response than Fish and Wildlife provides, he said. “This is going to be good,” he said. “We’re going to get on it.”
Songer said his office now has a posse of four or five hound handlers.
“We will have the ability to respond 24/7,” Songer said. “We can probably make a quicker response due to the fact we have more deputies than they have wildlife people.”
Fish and Wildlife assigns two law enforcement officers to the county. They could be patrolling on the Columbia River and hours away from a predator incident, Bear said.
“They aren’t always available for public-safety calls,” he said. The sheriff’s office will “be able to provide a better service for public safety.”
Fish and Wildlife won’t always pursue a predator that’s killed another animal, Bear said. For example, the department may not seek to euthanize a cougar that killed a goat tied up in the woods all night, he said.
“We’ll say, ‘Well, you really shouldn’t have tied up the animal there,’” Bear said. “We talk to people about their animal husbandry at bad times.
“I think what’s unusual about the sheriff’s policy is that he’s using dogs,” Bear said. “If the sheriff is careful about when he applies that, he’ll be fine.”
About 100 cougars were killed statewide last year after being chased by dogs called out by Fish and Wildlife. One cougar that was euthanized had killed a cyclist in King County. Some 244 cougars were harvested by hunters.
Fish and Wildlife estimates Washington has 3,350 cougars, a number based on a formula rather than an actual count. The department says it’s not practical to tally cougars and can’t say whether the population is increasing.
Because of complaints about cougars by rural residents, particularly in Eastern Washington, the department is studying whether to increase recreational hunting in 2020.