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The Spokesman-Review, October 20, 2015

Gov. Inslee nixes cougar hunting quota increases; overrules wildlife panel
By Rich Landers

HUNTING -- Answering an appeal filed by eight wildlife-protection groups, Gov. Jay Inslee has struck down increases in cougar hunting quotas approved for this year by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Inslee said an amendment proposed at the April commission meeting to increase cougar hunting quotas by one-to-three animals in some designated areas was done without proper advance notice to the public.  The citizen panel approved the increase by a 7-1 vote.

This may be the first time a Washington governor has forced the reversal of an action taken by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, said Bruce Botka, state Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman in Olympia.

"We will be reviewing the governor’s action with our assistant attorneys general and the commission and will identify management options moving forward," Botka said. "We had already planned to work with the commission next spring to review cougar hunting rules for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons."

Inslee announced his action Monday in a letter to the Humane Society of the United States as well as other parties involved in the administrative appeal -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Mountain Lion Foundation, Wolf Haven International, The Cougar Fund, The Lands Council (based in Spokane), Predator Defense, Kettle Range Conservation Group and Gary Koehler, a former Fish and Wildlife Department research scientist.

The groups pointed out that in the published proposal going into the April meeting, state wildlife managers had proposed quotas estimated to be 12-16 percent of the cougar population in designated game management areas.

Biologists wrote that this was a "sustainable harvest rate" for mountain lions. They also pointed out in the proposal that "harvest rates in excess of 16 percent can result in declines in core populations of breeding females, and excessive male harvest rates result in the loss of adult male territorial (behavior), which acts as a regulatory mechanism for local male cougar members."

Based on those statements in the published proposal, the groups appealed saying that the public had no reason to suspect Commissioner Miranda Wecker of Naselle would offer a last-minute amendment to slightly increase the quotas.

After the groups' June 30 rulemaking appeal to the commission was denied by the panel in August, the groups stepped up the appeal to the governor.

In proposing her cougar quota increase at the April 9-10 meeting, Wecker said, "The logic is that we have tremendous social conflict under way. I don’t believe that in any of these GMUs the small changes that I’ve proposed will make a difference in the health of cougar populations. I’ve been assured by staff that is the case.…"

Wecker said increasing cougar quotas would give some relief to communities reporting predator issues in areas with wolf packs.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to increase the restrictive cougar harvest guidelines to 17-21 percent of the estimated population in several Eastern Washington game management areas where wolves also are present. That was a 5 percent increase over the original published proposal by Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists.

Inslee's decision is based on a procedural rule and does not address the wildlife biology involved.

But the appealing groups are quick to fill that gap.

"The Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to kill more cougars after ignoring the public and its own scientists," said Collette Adkins, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Its knee-jerk decision needed to be reversed, and we’re overjoyed that the governor agreed with us.”

"The commission’s decision also ignored a 13-year, Washington-based scientific study that cost taxpayers approximately $5 million," she said. "The study showed that killing cougars at such high levels might exacerbate conflicts with people and livestock and would do nothing to prevent future cougar attacks or make people safer."

But hunters, who tend to be seeing a remarkable number of cougars this year, say the animal groups are making the cougar quota situation a bigger deal than it is.

"I am 100 percent in support of the quota system and protecting cat populations," said Bart George, a wildlife biologist with the Kalispel Tribe and a houndsman often called by state wildlife officials to help them deal with problem cougars and bears.

However, George says, a "12-14 percent harvest rate is a worthless measure (for indicating sustainable cougar numbers) when we have no idea what the population is. It's an estimate at best. The whole thing is a bad joke."

In 2014, hunters killed 163 cougars from an estimated statewide population of 3,600 animals, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife data.

 

© Copyright 2015, The Spokesman-Review.

This article originally appeared here.

Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.