Cougars a problem

BOB MOTTRAM; The News Tribune


BELLINGHAM - Washington officials considered only a minor amendment to a minor detail of the state's public safety cougar removal regulation, but the subject matter alone - as usual - stimulated citizens to come out to complain about perceived danger from cougars.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission met for two days last week, and on its Friday agenda was a proposal to address who may participate in public safety cougar removal hunts and what the licensing requirements for them will be.

The commission had instituted the public safety cougar removal program in the aftermath of passage in 1996 of an initiative measure that outlawed hunting cougars and bears with hounds. Following implementation of the initiative, complaints about predator depredations, particularly by cougars, increased dramatically.

Under the removal program, the department issues special permits to qualified hound hunters to pursue and kill a specified number of cougars in areas in which human-cougar "interactions" have reached a certain threshold.

On Friday, the commission considered an amendment, which it passed, to require that such hunters be residents of Washington and that at the time of application for a permit they possess a valid big game license with a cougar-hunting endorsement.

That was all the opening some rural delegations needed to bring their cougar complaints - yet again - before the commission.

"Complaints reoccur in the same areas year in and year out," Donny Martorello, bear, cougar and special species manager for the department, told the commission.

They tend to cluster in the Interstate 5 corridor and in northeastern Washington and Okanogan County.

The state imposed changes to its cougar-control program in 2000, Martorello said, making "lethal response" easier, and in the three years since 1999 the take of cats under the program increased 25 percent, to 803, compared to the three years prior.

Still, the counties that contain the highest densities of cougars - Okanogan, Stevens and Ferry - continue to experience serious threats to public safety, Martorello said.

Among those who testified Friday was Mike Blankenship, county commissioner from Ferry County.

"I'm here to confirm the fact that the problems still exist," he said.

Blankenship cited several cougar attacks on livestock this year in his county, and said two cougars had stalked a human there. Both cats were killed.

"I think the department has failed to provide ... safety for the citizens of the state," he said.

Mary Lou Peterson, county commissioner from Okanogan County, said problems in her part of the state "continue daily."

Peterson asked the commission to seek authority from the legislature to establish a hound-hunting pilot program in the three northeastern counties, in which hunters could pursue and kill cats during regular seasons.

"We need to have our pursuit season back," she said.

Since hound hunting was banned, cougars no longer are afraid of people or dogs, Peterson said, and she wants that changed "before we lose a life. And it's almost happened."

Joel Kretz of Wauconda raises quarter horses in Okanogan County, and cougars have targeted his animals numerous times. Many of his neighbors operate under the "shoot, shovel and shut up" system of cougar management, he said, but he has obeyed the law and can testify that it doesn't work.

"I don't think you've got the ability to fix this (under terms of the initiative)," Kretz said. "I don't think it can be fixed without a regular hound season."

Rhoda Cargill, who lives in the Snohomish County town of Darrington, said people in her area experience numerous confrontations with cougars, but few report them because they don't think the state will do anything about them.

Bob Mottram: 253-597-8640


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