State sttempting to reduce cougar conflicts

In the four weeks since a cougar killed one cyclist and attacked another in California, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has continued to pursue an aggressive strategy to reduce human conflicts with the Evergreen State's own population of big cats.

Since Jan. 1, hunters holding special permits have tracked and killed 43 of 61 cougars targeted for removal this year under a long-term plan to reduce cougar populations in areas where they are raising the greatest concerns. That ongoing effort follows on the heels of the regular hunting season, when hunters took more than 100 cougars statewide.

Meanwhile, WDFW has initiated several new research projects and a new public education campaign to gain and promote a broader understanding of the elusive animals.

"Public safety is our first priority for cougar management in Washington state," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. "As a matter of policy, our enforcement officers attempt to track and kill any cougar that attacks a human or presents an immediate threat to public safety. But there's a lot more to managing our state's cougar population than just chasing individual animals."

Although no one has been killed by a cougar in Washington since 1924, WDFW has responded to an average of one or two non-fatal attacks per year over the past decade, according to department records. In the most recent documented attack, a cougar pounced on a hunter and knocked him down as the man was field-dressing an elk last November in the Blue Mountains. The hunter was shaken, but not seriously injured.

Current estimates of the state's cougar population range from 2,000 to 4,000 animals - a variation due in large part to the cats' elusive nature, said Donny Martorello, WDFW carnivore specialist. While the department is currently working to develop more precise estimates of local populations, "it appears that the state's cougar population is generally healthy," Martorello said.

Strategies for managing Washington's native cougar population have changed several times over the past half century, Martorello said. Hunted as a bounty animal during the first half of the 20th century, cougars were reclassified as a game animal in 1960 and usually hunted with the assistance of dogs, the most effective way to track the big cats.

In 1996, when Initiative 655 banned using hounds to hunt for cougars, WDFW developed new ways to control the state's cougar population. Those methods include:

€ Public Safety Cougar Removal: In response to growing public concerns about cougars following passage of I-655, the 2000 Legislature authorized the Fish and Wildlife Commission to allow the use of dogs to help remove cougars in areas with demonstrated public safety concerns. In December of that year, hound hunters with special permits were allowed to take 74 cougars from areas with the highest number of confirmed complaints under WDFW's newly instituted Public Safety Cougar Removal (PSCR) program. Additional animals have been removed each year from areas with the highest number of public complaints.

€ Expanded hunting seasons: Immediately following passage of I-655, WDFW significantly expanded general hunting seasons for cougars, eliminating special-permit requirements and increasing the length of the season from approximately three months to six months per year. These changes were made to compensate for the ban on recreational hound hunting. Preliminary figures show that hunters took 110 cougars in 2003, usually while hunting for other game.

€ Depredation permits: Any time a cougar presents an immediate danger to the public, pets or livestock, WDFW can issue a permit to remove the animal - independent of the PSCR program or regular hunting seasons. In 2003, WDFW issued 59 depredation permits statewide.

Taken together, these strategies have resulted in removing more cougars, particularly from populated areas, than in the years prior to passage of I-655. According to WDFW records, an average of 243 cougars have been killed each year by these methods since 1997, compared to an annual average of 188 animals in the previous five-year period.

While the results of this approach vary by region, Martorello sees several indications that the department's current strategy is helping to control the state's cougar population.

For one thing, hunters are finding it increasing difficult to find cougars in many areas. WDFW harvest reports show that the number of cougars taken during the general hunting season has declined significantly over the past three years, dropping from 220 animals in 2001 to 110 in 2003.

In addition, WDFW is receiving far fewer complaints from the public about cougars, most of which stem from backyard sightings and predation on pets and livestock. According to WDFW enforcement records, the number of complaints filed about cougars has dropped steadily from an all-time high of 955 in 2000 to 255 in 2003.

"The numbers are encouraging, but our officers still respond to a lot of cougar calls," said Chief Bruce Bjork of the WDFW enforcement program. "Some areas of the state clearly have more trouble with cougars than others."

Recognizing that fact, WDFW's 2003-09 Game Management Plan calls for overall reductions in the cougar populations in the three areas with the highest number of complaints: the Okanogan Valley, northeastern Washington and the Puget Sound lowlands.

In line with that policy, most of the cats targeted for removal under the department's special-permit safety program are also in those three areas, Koenings said.

"The goal of that program is to reduce the number of cougars in areas where they are causing the most trouble, not drive them to extinction," Koenings said. "Cougars are a native species that play an important role in the ecosystem, so we want to maintain that balance wherever possible. But in those areas with a lot of conflicts between humans and cougars, public safety has to be our top priority."

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