Of cougars, science and public trust

Of cougars, science and public trust

Conservation Northwest / Jul 06, 2015 / Cougars, Hunting

By Paula Swedeen, Policy Director

Conservation Northwest has joined with the Humane Society of the United States and other groups to petition the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to amend its three-year cougar hunting quota rules finalized on May 1st 2015.

The petition requests that cougar hunting quotas be returned to levels proposed by the Department in February 2015, levels that are based on the thoughtful use of years of cougar research conducted by Department biologists and other wildlife scientists, and designed to maintain a stable, well-behaved cougar population in our state.

What was adopted instead at the April Commission meeting without proper public input opportunities was a last-minute departure from the Department’s initial proposal. Rejecting the Department’s recommendation, the Commission increased allowable cougar take from 12-16 percent of the population per Game Management Unit (GMU) to 17-21 percent in GMUs that overlap known gray wolf territories.

We do not often nor lightly take formal action against Commission decisions. We felt compelled to do so this time because the rule was adopted via an egregious process foul that sets bad precedent and disrespects the public’s ability to have adequate input on decisions affecting our state’s fish and wildlife. The Department’s prior season and proposed cougar harvest quota recommendations are a model for modern, science-based management. The 12-16 percent harvest threshold per GMU is designed to balance hunting opportunity with the goal of maintaining self-sustaining cougar populations comprised of cats that minimize conflicts with livestock and human communities. This policy is based on the best current understanding of how cougar populations and territories respond to hunting pressure and other forms of mortality.

The Commission justified this departure from science-based cougar harvest regulations by saying that parts of the state where wolves are recovering needed additional relief from predator pressure, and so pushed the 17-21 percent harvest levels based on the notion of social tolerance. This is despite findings recently published by the Department showing that wolf recovery has not had a negative impact on elk, deer or other ungulate populations anywhere in Washington at this time.

Ignoring science in management of wildlife is not often prudent.  Combining that with poor public process and a lack of transparency, however, is a recipe for mayhem. We understand that science is never absolute, and our understanding evolves over time. However, in a management context, we only learn from carefully crafted experiments with years of systematic observation on the effects of changing variables, a principle called adaptive management. This cougar hunting quota level change was not done as part of any study to determine its effects.

We agree that social tolerance is important for keeping large carnivores on the landscape and maintaining rural livelihoods. But social tolerance can be an elusive state of affairs that is more often achieved through deep and careful work within and between stakeholder groups. Such hard work takes time and trust. We think that making decisions that depart abruptly from science-based wildlife management recommendations that are specifically designed to minimize negative interactions between predators, people and livestock takes us further away from a lasting coexistence.

Transparency in decision-making is vital to maintaining public trust and confidence in both the Department and the Commission. The Washington Administrative Procedures Act was put into place to allow ample time for public input and consideration, and to weigh available evidence on the merits of proposals. Final rules that differ substantially from what the public has already seen and on which they have had the opportunity to provide input are supposed to get supplemental comment periods. This is not just a technicality, but a way to make sure that all views are considered and that everyone understands how and why the final proposal was developed. Rules made this way tend to have more durability and public acceptance. The Commission clearly did not follow such a process in this case.

Conflict over wolves in our state, especially in northeastern Washington, is intense and difficult. The Department has committed substantial resources to hiring talented conflict specialists and helping ranchers implement techniques to keep livestock safe and minimize the need for lethal removal. They have also started work with a third-party neutral facilitator to get at the roots of the issues. Such wise investments have a better chance at fostering an accurate understanding of what it’s going to take for all stakeholders to successfully live with native predators and each other. We find this to be a more promising path (and one we hope the State will continue) than tinkering with cougar hunting seasons in an unbecoming way that could make things worse all around.

Paula Swedeen, Ph.D. is Conservation Northwest’s Carnivore Policy Lead based in Olympia, Washington. She also sits on Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group.