Hot on the heels of a cougar, Catherine Lambert could barely contain her excitement. She had nearly nailed the location of a radio-collared female first captured the previous winter, when her telemetry antenna signaled that the cat had abruptly changed its speed. She must be running after a meal, Lambert thought. Then the Washington State University graduate student heard a strange howling, and soon after, lost the signal.
"The next day, we received a call to retrieve her radio collar," Lambert says, her soft French-Canadian accent tinged with sadness. Hunters had chased down and killed the cougar, which - just a few weeks before - had been traveling with kittens.
The same thing happened again and again as Lambert and her fellow researchers followed cougars through the forests of northeastern Washington in 2002. As the body count mounted, "the bell went off," Lambert says. "I thought, 'There's something really wrong here.' " In the end, the dispirited research team collected 22 collars - nearly half of their study subjects. The scientists worried that overhunting could be placing the state's cougars in serious jeopardy.
At the same time, a growing chorus of newspaper columnists, politicians and ranchers claimed that Washington's cougar population was exploding and called for even more hunting. A 1996 statewide initiative (I-655) that banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars, they said, had allowed the cats to flourish and increasingly threaten livestock, pets and people.
In reality, as the researchers would show, the measure led to the highest rates of cougar slaughter since the height of the predator bounty-hunting era in the 1930s and '40s. Ironically, biologists like Lambert now suspect that all this killing - originally authorized to reduce cougar-human conflicts - may actually be triggering yet more dangerous encounters.
The spike in cougar deaths resulted in part from a radical change in the state's game-management plan. After the hound-hunting ban passed, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials quickly liberalized hunting regulations in order to control the cougar population and maintain the revenue from cougar licenses. They extended the hunting season by six months, doubled the legal bag limit, and rolled half-price cougar tags - traditionally sold to just 1,000 hunters a year - into big-game hunting packages.
Under the new policy, nearly 60,000 deer and elk hunters hit the woods each season with cougar tags in their pockets. Still, complaints about cougars skyrocketed. Before the hound-hunting ban, such complaints averaged about 250 a year. They more than doubled the year after the ban before peaking at 936 in 2000.
Notoriously shy by nature, cougars would just as soon avoid humans. But Washington's rapid population growth - nearly 60 percent above the national average between 1990 and 2000 - and the attendant loss of 70,000 acres of undeveloped land each year reduced the wide-ranging cats' habitat, forcing them into closer contact with humans.
Though only 2,500 to 4,000 cougars lived in the state, they seemed to be causing consternation everywhere, eating endangered caribou and deer, killing livestock and pets, even attacking the occasional human. Cougar attacks on people are rare - lightning strikes are more common - but eight of Washington's nine recorded attacks occurred in the 1990s, including the mauling of two children in the northeastern corner of the state.
Complaints were especially high in Okanogan County, where Washington's only recorded fatal cougar attack on a human occurred in 1924. Okanogan County commissioners threatened to declare open season on cougars, arguing that the increased number of complaints meant that there were too many cats. Rancher Joel Kretz, now a state senator, blames the hound-hunting ban for the heavy losses he sustained on his Okanogan County property. "For a while, there were cougars everywhere," he says. "And for a while I was losing half my foal crop." Kretz stoked local fears about cougars by circulating a grisly photo in 2003 that showed a colt missing a wide patch of skin from its flank.
The growing hysteria fueled a legislative blitz to once again expand cougar hunting. By 2004, nine statewide bills had been introduced to reverse or circumvent the hound-hunting ban. Two of them passed: One authorized the use of hounds for public safety hunts and the other launched a pilot program that gave commissioners in five northeastern counties control over emergency safety hunts. On March 13, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, D, extended the pilot program through 2011 - and opened it to all counties in the state.
All these legislative efforts were based in part on the untested assumption that the hound-hunting ban had caused a rapid rise in cougar numbers and a consequent increase in run-ins with people. But even as state wildlife officials and politicians unleashed more hunters, Lambert and other researchers began to uncover evidence that this popular notion was dead wrong.
By the time Lambert began her work at Washington State University's Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory in 2002, lab director Rob Wielgus and his team had already captured and collared 32 cougars in the Selkirk Mountains at the junction of Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. Their efforts over the next several years revealed some unexpected and disturbing trends. Over half of the cougar kittens and yearlings - and nearly 70 percent of adult males - were dying each year. Hardly any mature cougars were left. Hunters were responsible for most of the deaths, and indirectly killed many kittens by shooting their mothers. By 2000 - even as cougar complaints reached an all-time high - "the population was tanking," Wielgus says. If these kill rates continued, the group reported in 2006, the area's cougars would be gone within 30 years.
Cougar kittens in the Colville National Forest, southwest of the Selkirks, were also faring poorly, as were adult females. But the population appeared stable because immigrants, mostly younger males, were moving in to fill the gaps. "But males won't stick around if there aren't any females," Wielgus says. And without females, a population is doomed.
"Everybody thinks that wolves, cougars, and other big predators are very resilient to hunting," Lambert says. But when the killing is heavy and widespread, even immigration from outside areas stops.
Intensive hunting was creating chaos at both research sites. Mature male cougars maintain order by keeping the younger males in line, Wielgus says. Without them, the cougars' home ranges and population densities were "shifting all over the place." Infanticide had increased, and the cats were getting into far more trouble with humans. Mounting evidence suggests that inexperienced yearlings - the "hooligan" teenagers, as Wielgus calls them - are responsible for most attacks on people.
The hound-hunting ban was passed "presumably to protect cougars," Wielgus says. But it appears to be doing exactly the opposite, and people - and cougars - are paying the price. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Now, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comment on a new game-management plan, which will drive wildlife policy for the next five years. Agency biologist Rich Beausoleil, a predator specialist, believes the new plan will do a better job of managing cougars based on science, not public opinion. Agency officials will have to rethink their assumption that killing cougars can reduce cougar-human conflicts and grapple with the consequences of giving cougar tags to so many hunters.
Heavy hunting is unlikely to reduce cougar-human interactions, Wielgus says, because predator behavior is learned. Removing one problem cat may prove far more effective than expanding general cougar hunting. Still, as long as the state allows hunters to kill cougars for sport, both Beausoleil and Wielgus think bringing back hound hunting might be part of the answer. Wielgus argues that cougars fared far better with hound hunters than with deer and elk hunters, whose sheer numbers and indiscriminate hunting style nearly wiped out the population. Where hound hunters pursue mostly older males - the trophy toms - deer and elk hunters kill far more females, a study by Beausoleil shows, leaving more kittens vulnerable to starvation and predation. With more hunters buying cougar tags each year - over 66,000 were sold in 2007 - Beausoleil says statewide quotas will also be a critical part of the plan.
Convincing the public to accept cougars as an integral part of a healthy landscape is one of the agency's long-term goals, Beausoleil says. Without top predators, the links between different species of an ecological community begin to unravel. Researchers think the loss of cougars and wolves in the East, for example, may have caused the decline of songbirds there. Once hunters killed all the top predators, populations of mid-sized predators like raccoons, foxes, and skunks exploded and, in time, ate all the songbird eggs.
But the benefits of large carnivores are a tough sell among those who view them as threats to life and property. "One of the things we'll never get a handle on is the folks who move to the end of a box canyon in the middle of nowhere, and maybe they come from the city, and they see a cougar and say, 'Hey, I saw a cougar, you've got to remove him,' " Beausoleil says. "Well, no, that's not what we do. You're living in cougar country now." He hopes that one day developers, whose brochures tout the wildflowers, deer and elk in Washington's wild places, will tell people about all the bears and cougars, too.
"People need to make a decision," says Lambert. "Do we want to live with cougars? If so, then we need to make changes in our behavior and accept that they're part of the landscape."
The author is senior science writer and editor for PLoS Biology (www.plosbiology.org), where a version of this story was originally published. She writes from Kensington, California.