County declares state of emergency - Game agent disputes claim that cougar problem is worsening
Methow Valley, WA - Citing an increasing threat of cougars in Okanogan County, a majority of the county commission voted Monday (Feb. 10) to declare a state of emergency, saying that they may defy state law and call for open hound hunting for the big cats.
Commissioners Craig Vejraska and Mary Lou Peterson signed the resolution after hearing concerns from members of the public and despite testimony from a state game agent stating that the cougar problem in the county is actually lessening.
"It has become apparent that the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife is helpless in correcting the every (sic) increasing threat of the number of cougars in Okanogan County," the resolution reads, adding that "citizens throughout the county feel threatened and fear the safety of themselves and their livestock because of the increased number of cougar sightings and livestock depredation."
"I’m not willing to wait until some child or person is maimed or killed," said commissioner Peterson. "We’re talking about a very dangerous situation in Okanogan County."
But not all commissioners agreed that the problem is severe enough to warrant declaring a state of emergency. Dave Schulz, who represents the Methow Valley and the southern part of the county, said that while there was an "element of concern" about human-cougar interactions, the declaration was overkill. He voted against the resolution.
"If we have a hot spot, we need to address the hot spot, not the entire county," Schulz said. "We still have to live within the law."
He said commissioners were ignoring the existence of the Okanogan County Wildlife Service, an advisory board set up by resolution last year in response to cougar problems. The board was given the right to respond with hounds, if necessary, to documented and verified predations. The board was also directed to work "in cooperation with" the WDFW.
But WDFW supervising agent Sgt. Jim Brown said Tuesday he feels the commission’s decision was not made in a cooperative spirit.
"We feel they’re working against us," he said. "What they’re doing is going to cause more problems."
Brown said he and his agents have been responsive to complaints of cougars throughout the county, spending 70 man-hours in the last 30 days investigating reports in the Pine Creek area northwest of Riverside.
"We’ve addressed it; we’ve over-addressed it," he said. "The bottom line is, we are doing more in this county probably than in all the other counties in the state combined. I take seriously the implication that any of our personnel have in some way been tepid to this issue."
Brown said his agency’s data indicate that the cougar population is on a significant downturn, especially in light of the high number of female cats that have been removed.
"The calls are down and the reason the calls are down is because the population is down," he said.
Complaints of cougars in populated areas have dropped from a high of 144 in 2001 to 76 in 2002, Brown said.
Last year, hound hunters in the county were issued 13 depredation permits, which allow hound hunting for specific cats involved in specific incidents in specific locations. County hunters were also issued Public Safety Cougar Removal permits to use hounds for 17 cats. Just 60 percent of those cougars were killed. Those permits were based on the previous year’s sightings.
This season, 24 Public Safety Cougar Removal permits were issued (based on 2001’s high number of sightings) and already 85 percent of those cats have been harvested.
Commission chair Vejraska said Tuesday that however effective the Department of Fish and Wildlife believes it is, it’s not enough.
"It obviously is not working," he said. "They are obviously not able to get enough of them."
Vejraska said that by declaring a state of emergency, the county will be able to go a little further in addressing concerns of the citizens.
"It basically gives us the right, in our opinion, by whatever means necessary, to take care of whatever created the threat," he said. "You have to take some extreme measures."
The commissioners have scheduled a special meeting for this morning (Feb. 12) to discuss ways to address the situation. Vejraska said he will propose a 30-day open season on cougars for hound hunters, followed by a 30-day open pursuit season, in which dog teams will be able to chase and tree a cat, but no kill would be made.
WDFW’s Brown said he has appealed to Olympia for direction, and suggested that the potential is there for local game agents to be forced to arrest hunters designated by the county to go after the big cats, for illegal hound hunting.
"The majority of the things they propose are not legal, and certainly not if the data does not back them up," he said.
Vejraska admitted that the county may be challenged on its decision, but added, "I’m not gonna be the county commissioner who has to apologize to a parent because their little daughter was attacked."
Brown said he believes the move is an attempt on the part of some citizens to circumvent state law, which since 1996 has prohibited hound hunting for cougars for sport.
Opponents of the law say it has made cougars more populous and more bold.
If you need to report a threatening cougar or other dangerous animal in populated areas, the WDFW is dispatched by the state patrol. That phone number is (509) 422-3800.
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