Cougars in chaos

How a state hunting policy pushed Washington's big cats to the brink

  • RICH BEAUSOLEIL, WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

  • Washington State University graduate student Hilary Cooley with a hound used to track cougars for research. ROBERT HUBNER, WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY

 

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.

Anonymous
Apr 11, 2008 06:04 PM

 

Fish and Wildlife is funded with perverse incentives.  The agency should not depend on hunting and fishing licenses, as this provides far too much weight to what is a very small population. Late last year, US Fish and Wildlife research showed that only 4.1% of our population are hunters, a smaller percentage than vegetarians in this country (5%).

States need to reform the way Fish and Wildlife agencies are supported to institute incentives that enhance wildlife populations and, especially for big critters like cougars, the ecosystem services they provide to human populations.  See this recent paper published in Biological Conservation:  http://www.cof.orst.edu/leopold/papers/cougar_cascades_ripple_beschta_2006.pdf,  "Linking a cougar decline, trophic cascade, andcatastrophic regime shift in Zion National Park."

 I'm not saying that hunting should be stopped, or that hunters haven't helped protect wildlife habitat over the years.  However, their voice and influence on Fish and Wildlife is wildly disproportionate to their numbers.  People who advocate for healthy predator populations, and those that would rather see than shoot wildlife, should be paying much more to support their state agencies.  This is why fundamental reform is timely, and necessary.  Otherwise, Fish and Wildlife will continue to make boneheaded decisions like the one Washington made with cougars, just to keep money in their coffers.

 

Alvin Bonnart 

  

Anonymous
Apr 14, 2008 11:17 AM

Alvin,

I can't agree with you any more. It is sad that non-hunters have no say in wildlife management despite much more revenue being through wildlife watching than hunting. It is a shame that on of the wildlife watching money goes directly to "wildlife management" like hunting does.

I am also repeatedly amazed how people are so arrogant to think that we have to management everything. Leaving cougars alone would allow them to naturally stabilize their numbers.

Jon Way

your an idiot
zach keys
zach keys
Mar 27, 2010 10:34 AM
where to you think wildlife management money comes from, photographers dont buy tags to take pictures, tourists dont pay money to the state to go look at wildlife, hunters tags and licenses pay for our wildlife management programs not non hunter anything. do a little research yourself before you give an opinion. if it wasnt for hunters we would have no wildlife. if i dont preserve my wildlife what will my kids hunt? hunters are the biggest wildlife preservationists in the country. and as far as letting cougar numbers balance naturally they are predators they will balance out when they run out of food and start dying of starvation, not only that but they eat 1 elk or deer per week multiply that by the estimated 6,000 cougars in oregon and you get 24,000 deer and elk killed every month thats far more than hunters kill. if you dont want your kids to ever see a deer or elk then let the cougars continue to rise and watch what happens to your game populations.
Anonymous
Apr 14, 2008 11:23 AM


 



The so-called "bone-headed" decision to ban hunting cougars with hounds in Washington was started at the grass-roots level, with nothing other than petitions well-placed in populus locations, such as the annal Seattle folk-life festival, local food co-ops, etc.  There, I, a well-meaning and reasonably well-informed citizen, (a vegetarian and non-hunter I might also add) signed a petition to bring an initiative to ban on hunting cougar with hounds on the grounds that it was "unsportsmanlike."  At the time I had a solid ten years of experience as a forestry technician, and thought I was well-informed on the subject.  Now ten years have passed, and guess what?  There have been some deleterious consequences of pushing that initiative, including the current backlash hunting of the cougar (witchhunt?).  I for one am relieved to see that this is scientific knowledge which Fish and Wildlife are working to heed.    


Anonymous
Apr 14, 2008 01:35 PM

The voters of the state of Washington (not WDFW) made the "boneheaded" decision to ban Cougar hunting with hounds.   I'd like to see an example of a WDFW decision that was influenced by hunters to the detriment of wildlife. 

Anonymous
Apr 14, 2008 06:57 PM

I don't believe hunters have that much influence on game management decisions, we're just the primary subscribers to the game commisions' franchise.  As just one example, elk numbers are largely limited in many areas by ranchers' complaints over crop loss such as alfalfa, etc. used to feed cattle.  At the end of the day this is a political decision to favor highly subsidized cattle grazing over elk, deer, antelope, and their predators.  This certainly doesn't favor hunters, many of those elk are killed by the landownders under "damage permits" and the lower numbers of tags reduce hunter opportunities. 

Anyway, if the number of prey animals is reduced, then a reduced number of predators must and will follow one way or the other.  You could stand by and watch the wild gyrations of an artificial and unbalanced system and hope that something is left standing at the end of the process (if it ever settles out), or try to balance the predators and prey populations as best you can.  I'm not defending or attacking the wildlife management agencies as a whole, there are some good decisions and some bad.    

All wildlife advocates, whatever their position on hunting and regardless of the species being considered, have a common enemy - loss and degradation of habitat by grazing, development, etc.  We all have a common interest in preserving habitat.  But we are being divided and set against each other by those with little investment in our wildlife and its habitat, but who stand to make money from exploiting it.  As a result they are disproportionately heard and indulged by the political decision makers, and our wildlife populations are the big losers.

Glenn 

        

Anonymous
Apr 18, 2008 02:49 PM

I think the sample size for some of these opinions is a bit small to start modifying current management, researchers have certain emotional ties to animals and concentrate on individuals rather than overall species health.  Fact is, there are plenty of cougars and the population is currently thriving.  As a hunter, I view this healthy population as a resource and would like to take advantage of a healthy population and hunt cougars.  The idea that hunters are responsible for leaving kittens stray by killing their bothers is a bit ridiculous, the fact is when large Toms are present in a dense population they will likely kill those kittens themselves to bring the female back into heat.  I see that they failed to mention that part.  The cougar population will self regulate, I sense an underlying motive to begin limiting the average sportsman's privelage of hunting mountain lions and make it a "management permit" type only lottery which essentially takes another hunting right (privelage) away from sportsman.  Inevitably some of these ideas will lead to the loss of rights, most research politicians have personal ties that differ from the general sporting population.  Sad but true, their motives will eventually overwhelm us and we will be defeated.

Eastern Washington Nature Lover

 

Anonymous
Apr 18, 2008 02:49 PM

 

 

The "bone-headed decision" by WA State Fish and Wildlife I referred to in my earlier post was this:  "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,"  NOT the citizen-initiative to ban cougar hound-hunting.  I am in full support of that.  

I apologive for not being clearer.  

 

Alvin Bonnart 

Anonymous
Apr 22, 2008 12:11 PM

"personal ties?" Seems like the "tie" between rural, white men and killing things is much stronger then that of people and wildness. Sad but true.

Matt

Northern Idaho 

Anonymous
Apr 22, 2008 12:12 PM

I say hunt Republicans.  With or without hounds, but preferably with.

Anonymous
May 20, 2008 11:10 AM


The cougar harvest data from 1997 is about 150 across the state. The data shows a general distribution across the state. However, Northeastern WA does have a higher number of animals harvested. From 1997 these numbers modulate between 200 to as high as 300 in 2001. From 2002 the number of cougar harvested each year until 2006 has been pretty much level at about 200 per year. Each of these years the largest number of cougars taken was from the Northeastern section of WA and was about 25% of the total for each year. Habitat an holding capacity of the land are potential reasons for these higher numbers in NE WA.



With about 60,000 hunters annually holding cougar tags, the numbers above represent a hunter success rate of about 3 tenths of one percent.



Data from WDFW annual reports.


Anonymous
May 20, 2008 11:10 AM

Interesting discussion on science with quotes from researchers yet no research articles by those quoted has been referenced. Similarly, no additional references were provided in either the article or the following comments. Seems to be a rather typical "News" article with little basis in real science.

Anonymous
Jun 11, 2008 12:01 PM




A note to the anonymous poster (5/19/2008). You are incorrect to assume that this story is not based on real science. Though news outlets don't include references in their stories, if you go to PLoS Biology, a peer-reviewed science journal, where a longer version of this article was originally published, as No Place for Predators? -- http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060040 -- you'll find plenty of references to the primary literature on which the piece is based. --Liza Gross




this is a joke
anonymous
anonymous
Dec 07, 2010 05:20 PM
washington state's wildlife is a joke. there are way to many people voting for things like hound hunting that have no idea what its about. these people shouldnt be aloud to vote. just the same as people in rural areas dont get to vote on things in big city these "city slickers" think that because they go into the woods one time and drive around looking to see a cougar and they dont that that meens all the big bad hunter people have klled them off. in the last three years ive seen six cougars granted i saw three at one time a lioness and kittens but thats is still frickin unreal to see that many cats in that little of a time. also in this same time period ive seen the deer herd in the area be destroyed i hardly see any deer there anymore. dont try and tell me hound hunting is bad or in humane or unethical. these people are just plain ignorant to whats really going on.