Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is conducting an experiment that threatens not only domestic animals and livestock, but may increase risk to rural residents. Because no ethical authority would approve its experimental design, WDFW relies on untested anecdotal methods to further its experiment.
For more than 30 years, some researchers hypothesized that hunting of cougars —mountain lions — leads to increased livestock conflicts. With advanced research technologies enabling tracking the behavior of America’s lion, a picture of social organization emerged showing resident cats had well-defined territories with little or no overlap among resident males, but with males encompassing multiple female territories.
When a territory becomes vacant, several transient cats will move in to contest and take over the area. When adjoining areas lose resident cats, the resulting “social chaos” by the arrival of typically less-experienced cats may lead to an apparent increase in the cougar numbers and ensuing conflicts as those cats may take chickens, goats or pets for an easy meal.
Research in Washington, as in other states and British Columbia, shows a high correlation between cougar mortalities and verified conflicts. Studies suggest if adult cat deaths remained below about 14% of the adult cougar numbers in an area, cougar society remained stable, with minimal conflicts. Initially, WDFW decided to adopt a hunting paradigm that would maintain cougar social stability.
Rather than conservatively limiting harvest to 10% of the adult cats in a Game Management Unit (GMU) as recommended by WDFW biologists at the 10th Mountain Lion Workshop, administrators elected to set the harvest guidelines to target 16%, including juvenile cats even though juveniles and kittens suffer high natural mortalities of about 50% per year. WDFW created an unrestricted season, September through December, with no GMU limits on cougars killed.
In addition, WDFW extended cougar hunting season to seven months, Sept. 1 to April 30. Last season WDFW recorded a record 379 cougars killed. At the halfway point of this accounting year, Washington has 220 recorded cougar mortalities.
Initiative 655, passed by 63% of statewide voters in 1996, banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars, lynx, bobcats and bears. Since, some have argued that the cougar population has exploded. WDFW does not publicly dispel that conjecture, even though cougar mortalities are higher now than during any previous decades, the result of increasing cougar-tag sales more than 40-fold.
“Conventional wisdom,” advocated by some, and apparently by WDFW, would tell us that if we kill more cougars, we’ll have fewer problems. Several recent investigations of up to three decades of data show that hunting cougars correlates with increasing conflicts.
However, correlation does not imply causation. The only way that research biologists can show a causal link is to design a medical-style experiment with controls. What community would volunteer to be part of an experiment to kill more cats to test for an expected increase in conflicts? WDFW’s current policy surreptitiously has been doing just that!
In several eastern regions, WDFW allows harvest above management guidelines, and aggressively kills cougars when responding to complaints. WDFW is also allowing county sheriffs to call out hounds to kill cougars when someone calls in a cougar sighting.
The results are clear: more complaints. Will the complaints change when there is a real emergency, but law enforcement is unavailable because officers are out chasing a cat someone saw?
In 2011, while biologists were publishing results from millions of dollars of research, WDFW removed the goal “Promote development and responsible use of sound, objective science to inform decision-making” from its mission and goals statement. WDFW chooses to “manage” cougars with conventional wisdom and political expediency rather than best consensus science. The outcome is increasing complaints from residents in over-hunted areas, and record deaths in our cougar population.
Now, WDFW plans to increase cougar harvest to respond to complaints in the over-hunted regions. Instead of helping people coexist with cougars, WDFW increases turmoil by killing cougars.
Enough, WDFW! Use the science taxpayers paid for; quit aggravating conflicts!
Bob McCoy is an advocate for science and apex species. For the past decade he has volunteered for the Mountain Lion Foundation, and was recently elected to chair the board of directors. He lives in Sammamish and has lived in Washington state since 1962 other than seven years he served in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviator.