Washington Mountain Lion Issues

I’ve enjoyed a couple long conversations with friends and fellow outdoor nuts in Stevens County – up in the Chewelah and Colville area of the northeastern part of our fair state of Washington. That area is pretty close to its habitat capacity for wolves, but these conversations were about cougars – aka mountain lions and pumas. It appears that these last couple weeks of columns are about our two best known apex predators (wolves and lions).

The way our Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) responds to mountain lion issues varies significantly across the state, given differences in habitat, animal and human density and populations, and so on. Director Kelly Susewind has made clear his intention to support his local wildlife enforcement officers in their decisions about actions to take regarding cougars which have come to public attention in their regions.

Across the state, mountain lion sightings and interactions seem to be on the increase. Whether this is because our human population is growing rapidly, because more people are out and about with cell phone cameras, because of an actual increase in big cat numbers, or because of some fundamental problem with mountain lion management remains to be seen. Public conversations and concern, however, are most definitely on the rise.

In several recent conversations, I have heard a couple general summaries of DFW’s approach to cougar problems across the state.

West of the mountains, wildlife agents generally focus on educating the public on ways to protect their pets and livestock from lions (such as bringing them in at night, and watching them closely when they might be at risk of becoming prey) and sharing information about living with big cats. In general, DFW enforcement agents and officers on the West Side have been reluctant to remove individual cats unless deemed absolutely necessary. This is probably understandable given that so many communities are right in the middle of lion habitat. Then, too, some officers apparently received death threats after euthanizing a cat which knocked a man down, then killed and began eating his leashed dog. The best decision – one which might best protect the public – is not always an easy one to make, according to various correspondents.

Here in Paradise, and across Central Washington, it is not unusual for depredating cats to be removed. On occasion, a handful of cats will be killed in a given month, but the frequency seems generally constant over the past few years. And the public is generally supportive of the work of our local DFW officers.

In Northeast Washington, however, a number of citizens and at least one county commissioner are insisting that cougars have reached a “critical mass.” According to a Jared Arnold story in the Chewelah Independent, three weeks ago (7 May), Stevens County citizens overflowed the commissioners’ conference room, presenting a nearly 400-signature petition demanding that the board and the sheriff take action on the growing cougar problem in the region – that it has become a serious threat to public safety. In the past year, alone, there have been 58 serious incidents involving mountain lions – including the one in which the bow hunting 16 year-old Colville Indian girl killed the lion stalking her six-year-old brother last fall. While local DFW officers were praised for their efforts in the meeting, DFW’s cougar management and the arrogance of some of its experts, however, was roundly pilloried.

One or two widely known cougar researchers continue to insist that the issues are largely people’s misperceptions and exaggerated reports of sightings based on the publicity given to incidents involving cougars and people and pets. The facts, and well-documented incidents, seem to show otherwise.

Jeff Flood is a wildlife damage specialist for the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office. He has spent most of his life in northeast Washington, and has decades of dealing with its predators. In his view, the county’s deer, elk and moose have seriously suffered from wolf and lion depredation, likely driving cats, in particular, into town for food. With state rule changes, the hunting pressure on both lions and bears has dropped, leaving fewer territories for young lions and pushing them toward people, although it is unlikely that simple. On trail cameras, folks are reporting far more predators than ungulates – a significant change from just a few years ago. Numbers of problem cat incidents are up – the most Jeff has seen in decades. In 2018, nearly three dozen problem cats were killed, and it is in the mid-twenties so far in 2019. Jeff works closely with local wildlife officers, and some days, he says, it is hard for them to keep up. It is no longer uncommon for Jeff and officers to deal with five separate livestock and pet depredations involving cats in one day.

As DFW enforcement officers continue to deal with local problem predators as well as possible, Director Susewind has directed an advisory group to rethink the state’s overall approach to mountain lion management and hunting. On the table are fresh ways of looking at, and calculating, big cat densities across much broader habitat areas. Montana and others seem to be making progress with similar approaches, and DFW’s group is to have a plan in months. It is hoped that a more holistic look at the state’s cats and their habitat will greatly improve local cougar management approaches. Soon enough for our friends in Stevens County? Stand by…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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