[Article by contributing writer, North Bend resident and wildlife enthusiast, Melissa Grant]
On April 5th 2019, a Capital Press headline read, “WDFW Director: When in doubt, remove the cougar.” This memo came shortly after a March Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Commission meeting in Spokane. New director Kelly Susewind – WSU grad with a degree in geological engineering and longtime Department of Ecology employee – took over in January 2018 after the former director resigned. To many, the new director’s ‘remove the cougar’ stance sounded like a change that could result in the killing of more animals.
Less than a month later – in our own backyard – that directive claimed one of its first victims.
The audio transcript of that March Commission meeting made it clear that many were concerned about cougar populations. Most notably, one group claimed that cougars and wolves were responsible for the deaths of 25,000 deer annually in NE Washington. They also went on to claim these predators were responsible for DFW funding shortfalls. If you believe their numbers and follow their extrapolations, you can see how the cougars are costing the state a fair bit of money in lost hunting permits. Apparently, they and the other meeting attendees convinced Susewind the problem was statewide and the memo was distributed to wildlife & enforcement programs on April 24th.
The very next day, on social media, a story started unfolding. In the comments of a wildlife story, a local man was telling a tale of losing his goat to a cougar. “I had my 130lb goat plucked off by a cat 30yards from my back door.” Some tried to help by sharing links and tips for protecting livestock. Others offered contact info for the local DFW bear and cougar specialist. It was clear from his response he didn’t think much of the Department or want their advice. “lol. WDFW has been here tracking this mother and 3 cubs for 8 years. Who is this ‘specialist’? Do they have experience hunting and hunting predators?” He said he also had a second goat taken in early February. Like the three men at the commission meeting, he seemed convinced the reason for the attacks was simple: loss of deer. Furthermore, the WDFW had been at his house that very day looking and he was disgusted by the “spiel” he had heard about responsibility.
It was clear this man wasn’t inclined to change his mind and a quick look at his Facebook page showed he had very poor husbandry, leaving his goats susceptible to attack. But what effect did the memo have on his two previous encounters with DFW officers? There were enough details to submit a public records request for both goat depredation incidents.
Soon after there was a Digital Open House with the WDFW director and other staff on May 13th. Armed with a copy of the memo and having studied department reports on cougars, four questions were put into the queue for consideration:
- A recent incident in the Snoqualmie Valley involved a resident with poor husbandry losing two of his livestock in three months. One call involved multiple officers, according to some accounts. What is the cost per call? How much taxpayer money is spent on repeat offenders?
- How are you solving repeat problem situations with large predators outside of killing animals? What if people don’t follow recommendations given by officers? Will you be following up with citations, fines and long-term solutions?
- There are recommendations in WDFW 2018 Game Status and Trend Report to avoid/minimize conflict and interactions with large carnivores through outreach, education, better husbandry and an emphasis on personal responsibility. However, the director’s memo regarding dangerous wildlife of April 24th excludes all references to these things. Is there a general trend towards de-emphasizing personal responsibility?
- WDFW manages fish and wildlife. Why does it suddenly sound like it is just helping remove or eliminate wildlife and carnivores? Where does responsible management play a role?
Two and a half hours later, these questions were either not asked; asked but significantly changed; or answered with what can only be described as blather.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, the questions were resubmitted to the director. Game Division Manager Anis Aoude replied on May 17th. The answer to the third question stood out as somewhat reassuring: “The Director’s memo that you mention was not intended to de-emphasize personal responsibility. It was intended to stress that human safety should be paramount when making decisions related to large carnivores. Our employees will still be emphasizing that good animal husbandry is the best way to avoid livestock depredation. They will also continue to provide technical assistance and suggestions along those lines.”
That answer coupled with point two on the memo – “When public safety is threatened or when livestock have been killed despite an owner’s efforts to protect the stock, staff will make every reasonable effort to removing the offending animal(s)” – seemed to suggest that the memo didn’t mark a statewide change in policy after all.
However, getting the reports from the local goat incident a few days later would again call into question what that memo actually meant for our state’s animal residents.
The first report was dated February 3rd and told a tale of a goat killed by a small or juvenile cat. The DFW officer searched the property, found the kill site and questioned the owner as to the whereabouts of the goats that previous night. He was told that the goats “roam free during the day and loiter around the barn at night”. They added they were not secured in the barn and had not done so for a “long time”. The officer continued his search, found a gap under the fence a cat could climb under and noted that the fence could have easily been jumped over as well. He informed the owner of his findings, gave advice to secure the goats at night and suggested adjustments be made to the fence.
The second report was dated April 26th – two days after the memo was issued. On the 25th, the owner contacted the DFW again to say his remaining goat had been killed by a cougar. The officer then contacted his supervisor who told him to give the owner permission to tie the carcass to a tree and shoot the cougar if it came back. Late that night the owner called, saying he’d shot at two cougars – killing one. In the morning after speaking with the officer from the prior incident who had noted the property’s inadequate fencing, several officers headed to the residence.
Once at the residence, the officers walked the property, took photos and found the deceased cougar and goat. Karelian Bear dogs arrived to look for a wounded cougar, but none was found. The dead cougar was a 50-60lb sub-adult female. The officer’s supervisor recommended not issuing a written warning for negligent feeding, poor fencing and husbandry practices “due to the Directors memo” even though the report noted, “no effort was made to better his fences.” The reporting officer also noted he “would have told him not to kill cougar and put up an electric fence if not for the director’s memo”.
So, does Washington State have a cougar problem? In some areas perhaps, but experts say that hunting practices may partially be to blame for this problem. Many incidents involve juvenile cats that were either alone or with another similarly aged animal. Orphaned cubs – left alone without a mother – often resort to preying on humans and livestock out of desperation. Thus, hunters who kill a mother cougar may be inadvertently causing this issue.
Calling for increased hunting pressure on cougars is unwarranted. There is no evidence that decreasing a cougar population will decrease interactions, as research has shown in multiple states. There is no evidence that an increased cougar population leads to more problems.
According to the WDFW’s 2018 Longterm Funding Plan, department funding comes from six main sources: federal, user fees, state and local contracts, state bonds and license plates. User fees alone are approximately 23% of the DFW’s spending, with a major portion of that coming from hunting and fishing licenses.
WDFW’s mission statement is: “To preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities”. Sounds a bit like they must try and serve two masters simultaneously. Perhaps that meeting back in March tipped the scales towards the consumptive users’ needs – aka hunters and fishers. How else do you explain how an issue in the northeast corner of Washington affected policy in the Snoqualmie Valley?
Residents in Eastern Washington have been making themselves heard on the subject of cougars. If you want your opinion to be considered, you must also make your point of view known. You can contact the Director at:
Kelly Susewind: Director’s Office PO Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504-3200 | 360-902-2200 | firstname.lastname@example.org
[Thanks to WDFW, Bob McCoy of the Mountain Lion Foundation and my anonymous wildlife enthusiast for providing requested research materials.]