Commissioners for the four southeast Washington counties are asking state hunting officials to essentially extend the general cougar season by three months to deal with the documented high losses of elk calves there.
“With all due respect (sic), we ask that you as director leave our cougar hunting season open until March 31 to allow as many cougars as possible to be removed from our area,” the statement said. Garfield County Commissioners James Nelson, Larry Ledgerwood and Justin. Dixon said in a letter in late December to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind.
The hunt is open, albeit under a quota system with 10-16 cougars still available for harvest in this rugged, snowy region, but it was a message that was unanimously echoed in late 2021 by the councils of commissioners of Asotin, Columbia and Walla Walla counties.
They are all reacting to news last month that only 11 of 125 Blue Mountains elk calves captured and collared last spring were known to be alive through Nov. 29, an “exceptionally low” survival rate; more typical rates range from 57 to 17%.
And with the onset of winter in this part of the state, death continues to stalk the herd.
WDFW reported last week that there were only nine calves with functioning telemetry devices, while a 10th had dropped its collar. (Seven others also lost theirs earlier in 2021.)
The calves are part of a study into why the Blue Mountains herd has fallen from over 5,700 elk as recently as 2016 to around 3,600 last year and is 36% below target population of 5,500, despite steep reductions in cow tags, which failed to trigger a rebound.
It is becoming clear that predation, and more specifically by cougars, is a significant factor in the steep decline – the severe winter of 2016-17 being another, as well as drought – and accounted for at least 77 calf deaths at the end of November, with 54 killed by the big cats.
“We share a common concern with our constituents and were shocked by the most recent elk mortality study. Coupled with other elk mortality data, we are gravely concerned about the apparent inadequacy of elk and elk protection to date,” wrote Asotin County Commissioners Chris Seubert, Brian Shinn and Chuck Whitman to WDFW, according to the Lewiston Tribune, which first reported the existence of the county letters.
In addition to the 54 calves killed by cougars, nine others were shot by bears, four by bears or cougars, four by an unknown predator, three by coyotes, two by wolves and one by a bobcat.
Wolves can only be hunted in Washington by members of two northeast tribes on and near their reservations. The Fish and Wildlife Commission recently suspended spring bear hunting in the Blues and elsewhere in the state for 2022.
Cougar season is open statewide through the end of April, but this “late hunt” that began Jan. 1 is also likely to close earlier if harvest guidelines for management units in the game are affected.
In the Blues, harvest guidelines range from five to six cougars in a group of GMUs along the Grande Ronde River and in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, to six to seven units on the northeast flanks of the Blues, to seven to nine units. on the northwest side and the foothills of the range.
The somewhat spongy numbers reflect 12-16% of adult population levels.
“I realize that the quotas are set with what is thought to be good science, but with the number of depredations as well as the frequent and numerous sightings, especially by coon hunters and other nocturnal beagles, it is evident that local cougar populations have been underestimated and quotas are unacceptably low. For these reasons, we respectfully request that you extend the cougar season so sportsmen (sic) can reduce numbers in an effort to help this struggling elk herd as well as other game and domestic animals,” said Columbia County Commissioners Ryan Rundell. , Charles Amerin and Marty Hall.
A Blue Mountains cougar research project that ended in 2013 found densities of 3.02 mature cats per 100 square kilometers, or 38.6 square miles, “significantly higher than those reported elsewhere in the United States.” Washington State, which averaged 1.5 to 1.7 adult cougars/100 km. ”
The letters represent a very different approach to that expressed by some members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission early last month, saying the elk herd target should be lowered and the hunt should instead be reduced. The calf study and an ongoing “literature review” by WDFW are avenues for potential cougar removals.
WDFW Region 1 Manager Steve Pozzanghera responded to Columbia County leaders in late December to say all three cougar management sets in the region were below their harvest guidelines, with six killed on the North Side -west of the mountain range, two in the Wenaha-Grande Ronde units and zero on the northeast side until the 29th, “and as such, cougar hunting seasons will remain open until January 2022.”
A total of 18 to 24 cats can be killed in the Blues at the start and end of the season.
“Regional Program and Wildlife Program Headquarters staff will continue to monitor the cougar harvest in these three Blue Mountain hunting areas and will coordinate with the Director’s office regarding your request to keep the seasons open through March 31. 2022. This may or may not be a problem and will depend on the additional harvest of adult cougars. We will keep you updated on the cougar harvest and any decisions associated with the season closure,” Pozzanghera wrote.
Hunters are entitled to one lion each license year and must have their catch sealed by the WDFW within five days of harvest. Dog hunting was banned by an initiative in the 1990s. It is illegal to kill kittens with spots, which turn into bars after four to five months, or adults with spotted kittens.
The first cougar hunt across the state runs from September 1 through December 31 without a guideline as part of a general season.
At the end of the season, hunters must also call (866) 364-4868 or visit a special WDFW webpage to check quotas, as well as report any animals they catch within 72 hours.