Washington wildlife commissioners will consider tightening bear, cougar hunting rules


Washington wildlife officials will begin crafting new rules for cougar and black bear hunting, a move that came in response to a request from environmentalists for stricter limits on the killing of the two species.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 7-2 Friday evening to direct the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin a rewrite of hunting regulations for the two species after a long debate over whether current rules pose a threat to the two populations.

A petition from four groups, filed in late October, argued that previous commission decisions to loosen the rules had led to unsustainable killings of the two species.

Fish and Wildlife staff argued that the rules hadn't led to major increases in hunters killing the predators. They also said they agreed that their models could be improved, and that they  already are working on new ways to track and manage the predators through the agency's new game management plan.

However, commissioners were persuaded by the petition, which argued that the previous changes weren't rooted in science and have already harmed bear and cougar populations. They were also swayed by a letter signed by 50 carnivore scientists that supported the petition.

Commissioners want to see action taken quickly, perhaps before August 2024, when hunting seasons restart.

"We do need to expedite this," said Barbara Baker, the chair of the commission, adding that large carnivore research indicates that population problems can be hard to detect until it's too late.

The vote Friday didn't lay out what the new rules would be, instead just beginning a "rulemaking" process that will play out over the next several months between  department staff and the commission.

The petition included several proposals, but there's no guarantee that the commission will use those ideas as the new rules. There's also no guarantee it will result in changes for both species — Baker, for example, said she was sure she wanted swift changes for cougars, but not necessarily for bears.

Washington Wildlife First, the Mountain Lion Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States filed the petition in October. It called for reversing commission decisions in 2019 and 2020 that the groups say have caused problems for cougars and bears.

In 2019, the commission bumped the black bear bag limit from one to two bears per hunter in Eastern Washington and set a standard season length statewide — Aug. 1 to Nov. 15.

Before that change, rules varied in each of the state's nine bear management units. The move increased the bag limit or extended the season in five units.

The petition from the groups showed that bear harvest increased by 49% from 2018 to 2023. In the 2022-2023 season, 2,211 black bears were killed by hunters statewide.

In 2020, the commission tweaked the way it set limits for cougar hunting, basing them on statewide median cougar densities and only counting cats that are  2 years old or older toward the limits. The petition argued that the change allowed the cats to be killed at a rate higher than the population's growth rate, and that the densities used to set the limits — known as "guidelines" — were inflated.

It also said this change occurred  as the number of cougars killed each year by wildlife managers and hunters combined had doubled since 2011, and that it was consistently exceeding a risk threshold of 249 cats.

The rule changes led to an increase in the number of people purchasing cougar tags each year, according to the petition, but in some years led to a slight decline in harvest. The petition says that "more hunters killing fewer cougars" suggests a decrease in the cougar population.

The petition suggested reducing the bear bag limit reduced to one per hunter and shortening the season by a month, to run from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15. On cougars, it asked for hunting guidelines based on population estimates and growth rates, and to count cats of all ages toward the rules.

Anis Aoude, game division manager for Fish and Wildlife , told the commission Friday that neither set of changes led to major increases in hunter harvest, and that the deprtment  felt confident that neither cougar nor bear populations were in crisis.

He said  there were flaws in the way the state manages both species, and that he agreed with much of what was included in the petition. But he said those concerns would be dealt with as the state  continues rewriting its game management plan, which covers all the species the agency manages, and that prioritizing new rules for two species will delay the completion of that plan.

The commissioners who supported making new rules for cougars and bears didn't want to wait for the completion of a new game management plan, which would put off rule changes until after that plan is finished late next year.

"I'd like to see it done sooner than later," said John Lehmkuhl, a commissioner from Chelan County. "I don't want to wait until the end of 2024 to make this decision."

The commission took public comment early Friday, and several wildlife advocates argued that reversing the rules was necessary to conserve cougar and bear populations. On the other side, hunters argued the petition was "anti-hunting," and that  state biologists have produced data that refutes claims that the harvest is unsustainable.

The vote was the third predator-related item the commission considered  on Friday. Earlier in the day, commissioners advanced a policy on allowing landowners to get permits for hunters to kill bears that damage timber. They also rejected a petition seeking to restore spring black bear hunting, which was canceled in 2022.