Cougar controls demanded - Critics tell state lawmakers current system doesn't work

Richard Roesler
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

posted 2/17/04

OLYMPIA, WA-- Citing cougar attacks on horses, dogs and children, some county officials say they can't wait for state Fish and Wildlife officers to investigate the complaints.

They want to launch their own cougar-control programs.

"We have people calling, saying they have a cougar in their back yard," said Okanogan County Commissioner Mary Lou Peterson. "We need to start actively pushing those cats back out of residential areas."

The best way to do that, proponents of the plan say, is to issue local permits to hunters with hounds trained to pursue and tree cougars. But a 1996 citizens' initiative sharply limited hound-hunting. Under the initiative, state Fish and Wildlife officials can issue special permits to hound-hunt animals for public safety.

That system isn't working, Peterson told state lawmakers Tuesday. Residents who call Fish and Wildlife agents about a problem cougar sometimes don't get an answer for three days, she said. By then, the trail is cold.

Senate Bill 6118, sponsored by local Sen. Bob Morton, is an attempt to speed up the process by letting Okanogan, Ferry and Stevens counties issue their own cougar-control permits under a three-year pilot program.

Okanogan environmentalist Mark Skatrud told legislators that county officials such as Peterson are overreacting.

Despite the limits on hound hunting, more cougars were killed in Okanogan County in the four years after the initiative than in the four years preceding it, Skatrud said. Cougar attacks and complaints are down, Skatrud said.

In fact, he said, local statistics show that loose, aggressive dogs pose a much greater threat in Okanogan County than cougars do.

"The county isn't interested in the facts," he said. "They're more interested in the rhetoric and politics."

Peterson, illustrating her speech with photographs of bloodied horses and a boy badly injured in a 2001 cougar attack, described cases of cougars stalking local residents. Two girls driving a farm pickup to their bus stop were horrified when a cat landed on the truck and tried to reach the girls inside, she said. One of the girls backed over the animal, which ran off and was never caught, she said.

Rancher and hound hunter Joel Kretz testified that since 1999, seven of his horses have been injured or killed by cougars. His son's pet terrier was killed in the back yard, Kretz said. He said he's afraid to graze his horses on 1,300 acres of his own land, for fear they'll be killed.

"The system is not working in Okanogan County," he said. "I'm outraged, and I don't think Fish and Wildlife is taking it as seriously as they ought to."

And it's not a matter of newcomers encroaching on cougar habitat, Kretz said. The canyon where he lives once held more than 10 homesteads, he said. Now his is the only one.

The bill would allow county officials to allow hound pursuit -- but not killing -- of cougars during the fall, and pursuit and hunting during the winter.

Hound pursuit would serve three purposes, proponents say: keep cougars at bay, train hounds, and make it easier for local hunters to use darts to retrieve a DNA sample to help researchers document the cats' numbers and territory.

How about using guard dogs, asked Sen. Larry Sheahan, R-Spokane.

"There ain't a dog big enough to not be a cougar dinner," said Kretz.

But Skatrud said the number of cougars, and the threat, seems to be shrinking. He contends the current system is working.

Skatrud said that in Okanogan County in 2001, for example, there were 140 complaints about cougars. In 2002, the number was down to 100. Last year, there were 100, he said, but 30 were redundant complaints from different family members or neighbors, or couldn't be substantiated.

"The facts don't support their arguments," he said. "But I don't think they'll ever be satisfied until every cougar is killed in Okanogan County."

Fish and Wildlife officials said Tuesday that the agency has become much more aggressive about cougars in the past couple of years. They said they've tried to work with Okanogan County, but worry that the bill, if passed, would set a precedent for all counties.

As for response times, Fish and Wildlife's enforcement program chief Bruce Bjork agreed with Peterson that it's sometimes slow.

"Are there communications difficulties? The commissioner is absolutely right," he said. "We only have four officers in that particular area, so we don't have somebody on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Fish and Wildlife deputy assistant director Steve Pozzanghera said Kretz's land is in a "topographical funnel" that feeds wandering wildlife -- including cougars -- into the canyon.

"We are extremely sympathetic and we do take the issue seriously," Pozzanghera said. "We don't believe it's acceptable either that an individual should have 1,300 acres that's not usable."

Half a dozen cougars have recently been killed on Kretz's land, Bjork added.

"I'm just wondering if there would be any difference in the department's response if there was a cougar in (Seattle's) Discovery Park," said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle.

Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said that unless an effective control for problem cougars is found, the likely solution will be the old ranch standby for problem stray dogs: "Shoot, shovel and shut up."

"I believe that's already occurring (with cougars)," responded Bjork.

Richard Roesler can be reached at

360-664-2598 or by email at richr at



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