Instead of reducing conflicts between cougars and humans, heavy hunting seems to make the problems worse, says a WSU researcher.
CLE ELUM, Kittitas County — Jane the cougar is having a bad day.
Ben Maletzke, the cougar biologist, couldn’t be happier.
After days of chasing the crafty animal, his team of hounds finally ran her up a tree where Maletzke could take aim with his tranquilizer gun.
Now, the predator powerful enough to take down a bull elk is lying helpless under a tent of fir trees while Maletzke replaces the batteries in her radio collar, checks her teeth and measures her girth.
Jane is part of a healthy cougar population that lives in relative harmony with its human neighbors in the rapidly growing communities just east of Snoqualmie Pass.
In the past six years, Jane has killed deer less than 50 paces from homes — yet residents don’t even realize she’s there. She has never harmed pets or livestock, nor have any of her offspring.
The story is different in northeastern Washington, where the state has stepped up hunting in response to soaring numbers of complaints about cougars, including two attacks on toddlers. A bill signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire last week could expand the cougar killing.
But startling results from studies such as Maletzke’s question this traditional approach to cougar management.
Instead of reducing conflicts between cougars and humans, heavy hunting seems to make the problems worse, says Robert Wielgus, Maletzke’s graduate adviser and director of Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory.
“It goes against the grain of what we’ve been doing for decades,” Wielgus says.
Killing large numbers of cougars creates social chaos, Wielgus and his students found. Trophy hunters often target adult males, which act as a stabilizing force in cougar populations. The adults police large territories and kill or drive out young males. With the grown-ups gone, the “young hooligans” run wild, Wielgus says.
“Every time you kill a dominant male, about three of these young guys come for the funeral.”
Evidence suggests cougars under two years of age, just learning to live on their own, account for the majority of run-ins with people and domestic animals. “You don’t get to be an old cougar by doing stupid stuff like hanging out in backyards and eating cats,” Wielgus says.
In the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of Washington, British Columbia and Idaho, Wielgus and his students discovered the cougar population was actually crashing at a time when everyone assumed it was booming — because complaints were off the charts.
Hunters had killed all the older males. Then they targeted adult females, whose numbers were plummeting. “About all that was left were these teenagers, and that could well be the reason there were so many complaints — even though there weren’t many cougars,” Wielgus says.
Another project focused on a smaller area in the Colville National Forest, also in northeastern Washington, where the state opened emergency hunts to reduce cougar numbers in response to complaints. But the cougar population didn’t drop at all. Instead, young males from a hundred miles around moved into the territories vacated when adults were killed.
“The only change is that the problematic component — the younger males — increased,” Wielgus said.
By contrast, the cougars Maletzke studies along the Interstate 90 corridor have been subject to light levels of hunting. Yet conflicts are rare.
“When you’ve got a population of smart, resident cats, that’s a stable situation,” he says.
“Respect for that cat”
Sometimes Maletzke wishes the cougars weren’t quite so clever. Jane has learned how to lead the dogs in circles — and leave them barking up the wrong tree.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for that cat,” Maletzke says as he sets out on his fourth attempt this winter to nab her.
He pulls his truck to the side of the road and holds up a small antenna, trying to pick up a signal from the cougar’s collar.
Sporadic beeps lead him to a hillside above the Yakima River.
Maletzke and his assistants strap on snowshoes while dog handler Dallas Likens unloads his three fastest hounds. The dogs’ frenzied barks explode like gunshots in the cold air. They strain at their leashes, dragging Likens behind them.
Most hunters used to rely on dogs to track and tree cougars, which are so elusive they are otherwise hard to find and shoot. But in 1996, Washington voters overwhelmingly passed a citizen initiative that banned the practice, which some consider cruel.
If voters thought they were putting an end to cougar hunting, though, they were wrong.
The number of cats killed by hunters in Washington has climbed in recent years, exceeding levels in the 1950s when the state paid a $75 bounty to encourage eradication.
Before 1996, hunters killed an average of 156 cougars a year. Since the initiative, the harvest rate increased more than 40 percent, to an average of 225 animals a year.
That’s because state wildlife managers, worried cougars would proliferate when hound-hunting ended, liberalized the rules for so-called “boot” hunters: Those who walk or drive the woods primarily in search of deer or elk.
The state raised the bag limit to two cougars, doubled the length of the season, and cut the cost of a cougar tag to $10. Before the initiative, the state issued about 600 cougar permits annually. Now, more than 60,000 hunters have license to kill cougars every year.
State lawmakers also enacted several bills to allow hound hunting in counties where complaints about cougars killing livestock or menacing people were high — leading to the heavy kill rate in northeastern Washington.
One unintended consequence of the new rules is a growing toll on female cougars. Whereas hound hunters selectively targeted large males, or toms, “boot” hunters tend to shoot any cougar they run across.
“Killing big adult males is not a good thing,” Wielgus says. “But once you start killing off females, there’s nowhere to go but down.”
The state is revising its game-management plan and considering quotas to reduce the number of female cougars killed, says Donny Martorello, carnivore-section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The agency also is weighing the research that suggests heavy hunting may aggravate cougar problems but is waiting for more solid evidence, Martorello says.
Jane is up a tree
The dogs have picked up Jane’s scent, and their baying reverberates up the canyon.
Maletzke’s radio crackles. Jane is treed, Likens reports.
But she’s perched nearly 60 feet up a Douglas fir, too high to shoot with the tranquilizer gun.
Maletzke breaks out tree-climbing spurs and begins a slow shimmy up an adjacent fir.
As he approaches Jane’s level, he shouts and flings branches, hoping to scare her out of the tree. The plan is for Likens to loose his hounds an instant after Jane hits the ground, forcing her to bolt up another tree — which he hopes won’t be as tall.
Jane scrambles up a 15-foot pine and soon has a dart in her rump.
She leaps down but doesn’t get far before she’s wobbling like a drunk.
Maletzke has collared a dozen cougars in these wooded hills and estimates a dozen more may roam the area.
In the six years of the study, cougars have twice snatched sheep from ranchland and killed a cat in a yard where residents were feeding deer and elk.
In state Rep. Joel Kretz’s district, the stories are worse. Cougars have killed at least 10 colts from his own ranch in Okanogan County. A boy was attacked in his grandparents’ backyard, and a little girl grabbed in a campground. Both children survived, but the next victim may not be as lucky, Kretz says.
“I don’t want to wait until we lose a child.”
He sponsored the bill that would extend hound hunting in five northeastern counties for another three years. Other counties could join the “pilot project” if they have cougar problems.
Cle Elum hunting spikes
If cougar hunting is going to continue, Wielgus and state wildlife managers agree the use of hounds is preferable to more indiscriminate forms of hunting. It’s easier to control and set limits on, Martorello says.
But the British Columbia conservation group Big Wildlife, which fought Kretz’s bill, argues voters already signaled they want cougars protected, except for targeted “taking” of problem animals.
Maletzke worries about the future of the cougars near Cle Elum, where hunting spiked this year for the first time and ranches are being carved into subdivisions.
Boot hunters shot 14 animals, including several females and kittens. Among the casualties was a mature tom, whose territory included the sprawling new Suncadia Resort, with its golf course, condominiums and elegant lodge.
A young male has moved into the area.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org