Perspectives on hound training bills HB 1516 and SB 5320

Perspectives on hound training bills HB 1516 and SB 5320

Conservation Northwest / Feb 26, 2019 / Cougars, Hunting, Legislation

Viewpoints on bills that would allow authorized hound handlers to pursue cougars for training, and the collaborative process that led to this legislation.

Update: HB 1516 passed the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Inslee on April 30th. It will go into effect on July 28, 2019.

As a group deeply invested in collaborating with diverse wildlife stakeholders in the interest of appropriate cougar conservation and management, Conservation Northwest supports Washington House Bill 1516 and Senate Bill 5320 as sound policy to allow the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to quickly address cougar depredations and public safety issues by allowing a carefully-selected group of hound handlers to train their dogs through limited, non-lethal pursuit.

A cougar on the Colville National Forest in August. We collaborated with biologists and diverse wildlife groups to inform this year’s hound training legislation. Photo: CWMP

The state ban on hound hunting, passed by citizens’ initiative in 1996, prohibits the general public (in this case, licensed recreational hunters) from hunting cougars, bears and bobcats using hound dogs. However, there was an exception for WDFW to be able to use authorized hound handlers in specific cases to remove cougars (also known as mountain lions) that have killed livestock or are causing a public safety issue.

This legislation addresses that issue by allowing the Department to carefully select qualified and ethical hound handlers that must pass a criminal background check (at a minimum), and who can then use non-lethal pursuit of cougars in limited situations to train their dogs. The Fish and Wildlife Commission would write rules to implement this legislation, should it pass. We will participate in the public process of drafting those rules to ensure that any negative impacts on cougars or other wildlife are as small as possible.

In Washington state, the Department of Fish and Wildlife manages cougars to keep the population healthy and stable, providing recreational hunting opportunity without the use of hounds while also considering multiple scientific studies showing that over-hunting can cause social instability among cougars, leading to an increased density of younger cougars with a higher propensity for conflict with livestock, pets and people.

Under this system, cougar tags are available for purchase by licensed hunters while hunts are regulated under quotas for each Game Management Unit (GMU). Depending on the recommendations of state biologists for each unit, two to 15 cougars may be legally harvested before cougar hunting closes in that GMU. Washington state law strictly bans hunter wastage of meat from cougars or any other big game animals.

In 2015, after pressure related to conflicts between wolves and livestock, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission increased cougar hunting quotas beyond the levels recommended by Department biologists. Conservation Northwest and other groups opposed this move, and an appeal to the Governor’s office on process issues was successful.

Out of this incident, several stakeholders representing rural communities, livestock owners, conservationists, animal protection groups and WDFW staff, including biologists and enforcement officers, got together to discuss mutual concerns and goals. One issue that emerged was the lack of an adequate pool of trained hounds and hound handlers to respond to cougar issues in some parts of the state—conflicts that typically cannot be rectified through the non-selective, general cougar hunt described above.

Another part of the discussion among stakeholders is to have the Commission eliminate the Public Safety Cougar Removal Hunt, which allows the Department to set a special hound hunting season in GMUs that have high depredation counts. The problem with this practice, everyone agreed, is that these hunts are general and months after depredation incidents have occurred, so not likely to reduce conflicts with livestock, pets or people.

To respond to these issues in a mutually-agreeable way, we worked with WDFW enforcement officers and wildlife specialists, the Humane Society of the United States, and hound handlers that regularly assist the Department with cougar depredation issues to draft this year’s legislation (HB 1516 / SB 5320).

We are continuing to collaborate with this group on solutions that prevent over-hunting of cougars and address the real concerns of rural residents. Some future ideas include a potential ban on backyard deer feeding, which attracts cougars into areas near homes and towns, increasing the availability of non-lethal measures for small livestock owners, and continued research into cougar population dynamics and space use in Washington.

 REad about our past work on cougar hunting and management in this blog: Of cougars, science and public trust.