Rep. Joel Kretz: Increased cougar hunting step in right direction, more needs to be done
The Spokesman-Review recently published an opinion piece against the state's increase in cougar hunting from a lawyer who works and lives in Seattle. I'm happy to provide a counter perspective, that of a rancher and lawmaker who lives and works in rural Washington where cougars live and prey on deer, elk and livestock.
I need to stress that I have no problems with cougars. I'm glad to have cougars on my ranch; they are part of the environment in which I live. I can coexist with cougars, just not on my back porch, or in my calving pastures and corrals.
The recent decision by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to increase hunting opportunities for cougars in our state is well backed by data. According to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), problem cougars killed in the field by wildlife officers in 2019 was four times greater than 2015. Here are the most recent statistics for cougars removed by WDFW officers:
- 26 in 2015
- 27 in 2016
- 32 in 2017
- 80 in 2018
- 105 in 2019
I'm grateful for the increased protection for our rural populations and their livestock. However, it seems we're now using taxpayer dollars to pay game wardens for something hunters used to do, while paying the state fees and licenses to do so.
The author of the piece critical of the commission's actions points to the doubling of our state's population since 1980. That statistic – that time period – doesn't explain the increased human/cougar encounters we've seen in the last three to five years.
According to the state Employment Security Department, the population of Stevens County was 43,523 in 2010 and 45,260 in 2018, a 4% growth rate compared to a statewide growth rate of 12.1% during that same time period. And Ferry County's population was 7,554 in 2010 and 7,649 in 2018, a 1.3% growth rate.
To use western Washington growth statistics to prove that rural northeast Washington has experienced a huge increase in population, and thus bound to have more cougar/human interactions, is disingenuous.
The author further asserts the commission is ignoring science. But the science on this matter is far from conclusive. There is a wide gap between the experiences, opinions and observations from officers in the field and the wildlife biologists within WDFW's bureaucracy.
The game wardens in rural northeast Washington have seen an explosion of problem cougar/human encounters. One officer told us that over the last few years his time spent dealing with cougar calls went from around 3-6% a few years ago up to around 25-30% last year! This is time they could – and should – be spending on other enforcement, patrol and game management activities.
In the words of one longtime WDFW officer, “The 'science' isn't working here.”
In addition, the suggestion of increased fences and motion detector lights isn't realistic when you're dealing with homesteads and ranches with extensive acreage. How can you put a motion sensor in a corral where horses, and cows are moving around all the time? That makes no sense. It's a Seattle solution for a Colville problem, which rarely works.
Furthermore, when the state eliminated hound hunting for cougars in the 1990s, the big cats lost all fear of dogs and their association with humans. As cougar conflicts increased, we reinstated limited, specialized hound hunting with strict oversight for specific problem cougars in problems areas.
However, animal rights activists succeeded in convincing lawmakers to do away with this successful program a few years ago. Coincidence that this coincides with the dramatic recent uptick in cougar/human conflicts? Not hardly.
Living a rural lifestyle comes with risks and rewards differing from an urban one. That's the beauty of it and most rural residents get it and accept it. But when misguided actions lead to laws that endanger the public, we as lawmakers and rule makers need to act.
The memories and pictures of three children attacked and maimed by cougars in my legislative district over a decade ago still ring fresh in the minds of many of us. The commission's expansion of cougar hunting is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. We need to bring back limited hound hunting in some form – the only proven, effective method for managing cougars.
(Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, represents the 7th Legislative District of northeast Washington.)