Fish and Wildlife Commission Fail Wildlife, Collaboration in Cougar Rulemaking

On the weekend of April 19th, while the Washington chapter accepted the George Bird Grinnell award at Rendezvous and volunteers labored to restore habitat along the Yakima River, the Fish and Wildlife Commission lowered the bar on sound management and responsible decision-making for Washington’s Wildlife. In a heated dialogue, a slim majority of commissioners ignored department staff, the Agency’s director, and the minority vote, to issue a narrow directive for rulemaking that will undoubtedly reduce hunting opportunities.

The decision stemmed from a petition filed by multiple animal rights activists and anti-hunting organizations, asserting that current hunting regulations threatened Washington’s cougar populations. However, the petition’s validity was questioned by many due to its reliance on non-peer-reviewed articles and endorsements from stakeholders with conflicts of interest. Despite widespread criticism from the conservation community, the Commission proceeded with discussions on rulemaking to reduce hunting, even though cougars are not listed as a species of greatest conservation need in the state.

Commissioners rushed staff scientists to present data on cougar mortality and populations, often interrupting them with preconceived opinions. While demanding decisions based on science, the Commission failed to provide the department with adequate time to gather and present their full findings on this complex issue. Still, two key concerns with Washington’s cougar populations emerged:

  •         In certain locations and situations, total cougar mortality exceeds the most precautionary standards for population health.
  •         Conflict mortality is the primary driver of this excess and continues to increase, even as hunter take remains stable.

Despite acknowledging these issues, the Commission's recommendations for rule-making avoid addressing conflict mortality and instead focus on reducing hunting opportunities. If finalized, these recommendations could lead to the closure of hunting in areas where cougar mortality surpasses a new and conservative threshold. Of course, conflict removal would continue- meaning that overall cougar mortality may increase, just without hunting involved. The commission has dictated that using tax-payer dollars to kill cougars and throw the carcasses in the dump is a better management practice than leveraging licensed hunters in the ethical pursuit of fine table fare.

The Commission's approach overlooks the increasing conflict with cougars, particularly in the wildlife-urban interfaces, where professional conflict managers frequently resort to lethal removal. Washington BHA acknowledges and respects the legitimate concerns of people living with wildlife conflict and advocates that the Commission would invest strategies to mitigate negative interactions, rather than de-prioritizing hunting as a sustainable solution.

The petitioners and majority position commissioners may inaccurately claim to reduce cougar deaths through this rule-making, but the disregard for department morale, systemic credibility, public trust, and long-term conservation legitimacy is undeniable. This dysfunctional decision-making undermines ecological health and exacerbates tensions within communities.

Leadership requires consensus building, collaboration, and respect for diverse perspectives. Unfortunately, the Commission failed in these aspects, dismissing the minority vote’s concerns with the direction and public fallout The Department Director, pointing out that this behavior was unprecedented, was unceremoniously interrupted and then ignored. Our agency, our state, and its wildlife deserve better leadership. If the Commission model is successful across the country, it can only be individual commissioners that must be held accountable.

While advocating for collaboration and seeking shared outcomes, the Washington Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is deeply skeptical of the Commission’s role in fostering factionalism and hindering conservation efforts statewide. Despite our efforts, including a recent email attempting to reinitiate dialogue with Commission leadership, our attempts to engage constructively remain unanswered. While acknowledging differences in opinion on some issues, the chapter continues to seek genuine allies and good-faith relationships across the conservation community but questions the Commission’s capacity to lead effectively.

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