Olympia - The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, responding to state legislation passed this year, will meet Saturday (9/16) in Wenatchee to discuss proposed rules for using dogs to remove cougars in areas with a public safety concern.
Commissioners will take public testimony and then vote on proposed rules developed by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists and enforcement officers. The rules spell out when dogs can be used to remove a cougar from a specific area providing a safety issue exists and all other practical alternatives have proven unsuccessful.
The proposed rules before the commission are based on the frequency and distribution of cougar complaints, including human encounters and pet and livestock kills or injuries, and the habitat conditions.
WDFW personnel have been seeking public comment on the rules since August, and have held meetings with various constituent groups to gather input. The public will have an additional opportunity to discuss the rules at Saturday's meeting, which starts at 1 p.m. in the Columbia River Room of the Red Lion Hotel, 1225 N. Wenatchee Ave.
Wildlife biologists say Washington's cougar population is healthy and growing. The population currently is estimated to number approximately 2,500 animals. Classified as a game animal by the state, cougars had long been hunted by sportsmen on foot as well as with the use of trained dogs, a technique considered by wildlife experts as the most effective way to remove dangerous animals.
In 1996, the state's voters passed Initiative 655 prohibiting the use of dogs statewide to hunt cougars during the general hunting season. However, the measure, recognizing the effectiveness of using dogs to remove cougars, gave WDFW personnel the authority to use dogs for specific cougars when the animals posed a threat to people, pets or livestock.
Presently, cougars are hunted on foot during a cougar season that lasts most of the year, from Aug. 1 to March 15. But despite the lengthy season, cougar complaints have continued to proliferate in recent years, largely as a combined result of increasing cougar populations and human encroachment into their habitat. During the past two years, the department has recorded more than 1,600 cougar complaints statewide.
These complaints and growing public safety concerns prompted the Legislature last session to adopt Senate Bill 5001 authorizing the Department, under very specific conditions, to use dogs to address public safety concerns presented by cougars. According to the Washington State Constitution, after a two-year period following an initiative, the state legislature may amend or repeal a voter initiative.
The legislation enhanced the Department's ability to manage problem cougars. Unlike the initiative, which limits the use of dogs to Department personnel and to hunting a particular animal, the legislation allows the Department to issue permits to licensed hunters who in turn can remove cougars within a specified area where cougar problems are known to exist.
The legislation states, in part, that the Fish and Wildlife Commission "shall authorize the use of dogs only in selected areas within a game management unit to address a public safety need presented by one or more cougar. This authority may only be exercised after the commission has determined that no other practical alternative to the use of dogs exists, and after the commission has adopted rules describing the conditions in which dogs may be used."
Under the proposed rules developed by WDFW biologists and enforcement officers, a cougar could be removed within a Game Management Unit (GMU) if there have been four or more human-cougar interactions or livestock or pet depredations, and seven or more cougar sightings or nuisance activities.
The number of cougars that could be removed will be based on criteria adopted by the commission and based on staff recommendations. Those recommendations would be based in part on the ability of the habitat in an area to support cougars. Once the commission adopts the criteria on when dogs could be authorized, the proposal allows WDFW's director to set permit levels and removal areas within the guidelines adopted by the commission.
As an example, under the current departmental recommendation the director would issue 74 permits to remove cougars in 17 GMU's that had the highest complaint levels in 1999. In four of the GMU's - Blue Creek, Coyle, Kitsap and Puyallup - the cougars would be removed by WDFW enforcement officers because the areas are heavily populated or pose other challenging conditions to the use of dogs.
In this example, the following number of cougar removal permits would be issued for these various GMU's: