Who Should Manage Our Mountain Lions?

Since the 1930s, most states have citizen commissions overseeing fish and wildlife management. Commissioners are generally appointed by the governor to set policy and seasons based upon the research and testimony of professional biologists in the agencies they oversee, and that of various public entities. Mountain lions (aka pumas and cougars) are among the various wildlife species managed by state agencies and commissions.

The Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission is organized under RCW Chapter 77.04. Chapter 77.04.012 lays out the mandate of the department and commission, which affirms that “wildlife, fish, and shellfish are the property of the state.” It goes on to identify the responsibilities of the commission, the department director, and the department to look after said property. The governor (under RCW 34.05.330 and WAC 82-05-050) might override a commission season-setting or harvest-quota administrative rule if the panel abused its discretion or misapplied the law.

Over the last couple decades, mountain lions have been much in the news around the country. For a time before the turn of the current century, in several western states including Colorado, California and Washington, politicians and animal rights activists succeeded in wresting management of mountain lions from professional biologists and wildlife commissions. Within a few years, assertions that cougar populations were threatened or downright endangered, the hunting of cougars was brought nearly to a stop. Within a relatively few years, however, lions had become such deadly pests – killing pets and humans – that cougar management was mostly turned back over to wildlife commissions and agency professionals. Still, big cats make such a juicy pie that some politicians around the West cannot keep their fingers out of it.

I have been fascinated by cougars most of my life. I think it has something to do with having been within 15 feet of a cougar the summer of my fourth year – just about the end of WWII. Off Grant Road, in East Wenatchee, a couple of us tots were playing outside on a hot and dusty day when a mountain lion walked into our mostly-dirt front yard and laid down in the shade of a neighbor=s car. A big male, it twitched its tail and watched us play. I can still feel that rumbling purr.

Our mothers freaked out, an armed neighbor showed up and the cougar died. The big tom turned out to be the pet of a guy up by Fancher Field. He had raised it from a kitten. That day, it had gone AWOL.

Since the turn of the century, we know a lot more about how cats behave among humans. The work of Project CAT (Cougars and Teaching) involved the Cle Elum/Roslyn Schools, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Pacific NW Center for Spatial Information and several other high-profile partners. Project CAT put Upper County K-12 kids at the front of research into the evolving relationships, and conflicts, between people and cougars. In the face of ever-increasing contact between pumas and people all over the West, this was important, good stuff. We all came away with a deeper appreciation of how well mature cats behave themselves among humans.

We also have a better sense of how yearlings become troublesome as they wander, seeking new home territories. Those cats are the focus of most hunting and harvest in Washington. In 2014, the commission’s quota was roughly 245 lions across the state. This year, the commission, in response to a substantial amount of evidence and testimony regarding growing numbers of cougars, set the quota at about 270 (“about” because quotas in various game management units are often stated as a range of two or three animals).

In response to their inability to convince the Wildlife Commission that lion populations are not expanding at the rate agency professionals stated, the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) petitioned the governor to reduce cougar quotas to the 2014 numbers. Apparently, he decided that the 25 additional animals in the 2015 quota was an abuse of our Washington Wildlife Commission’s discretion, and recently granted HSUS its petition, overriding the commission and returning quotas to the 2014 levels.

In several ways, this seems like the 1990s again. Is this the beginning of another cycle in which our wildlife professionals lose more of their charge to look after the balance between people and wildlife? That certainly is what we have asked them – hired them – to do. Frankly, I’m not really sure if we are seeing a step backward or not. Still, it may be a good conversation-starter with our legislative delegation.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized