Washington wildlife managers approved more liberal, regionally specific, cougar hunting rules, Friday.
In a 6-3 vote Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioners changed the cougar harvest allowance allowing hunters to kill more cougars in 19 game management units.
"I've been wanting to fix the population estimate for a long time and this was the opportunity to do it," said Commissioner Kim Thorburn, from Spokane.
She's referencing the fact that, unlike many other game species, cougars weren't managed based on regional population density estimates.
Instead, WDFW had set a statewide density estimate. They then set harvest guidelines for individual Game Management Units based on the amount of habitat available. The harvest guidelines allowed between 12% and 16% of the estimated cougar population to be killed by hunters.
Those guidelines, however, do not apply to the state's early cougar season, which runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.
Once that season closes, wildlife managers determine how many cougars were killed by hunters, and close units that exceeded the guidelines. For GMUs that haven't exceeded it, another hunting season starts on Jan. 1 and runs through April 30, or until the harvest guidelines are exceeded.
Under Friday's deciscion the harvest guidelines will change for 19 GMUs that have exceeded harvest guidelines during the early hunting season (Sept. 1 through Dec. 31) at least once in the past five years.
Now, WDFW staff will use this higher harvest number to set a new upper-harvest limit. Subadult cougars will not be included either in the density estimate or in the harvest guidelines.
However, two areas in Washington had harvest numbers that would "exceed densities that research has shown is possible," said WDFW game division manager Anis Aoude in a previous interview.
In those cases, one of which is GMU 121 northeast of Spokane, the number of cougars allowed to be killed by hunters will be capped to match density estimates of four cougars per 100 square kilometers, he said.
That means hunters in GMU 121 could take 12 cougars.
Still, the guidelines would not apply to the early season hunt.
WDFW staff received 555 emails, one letter and 177 online comments on the rule change. Of the online comments 52% generally agreed, 34% generally disagreed with liberalizing cougar hunting and 14% were neutral.
Of the emails 532 were form letters opposing all types of predator hunting.
In an emailed statement the Center for Biological Diversity decried the decision.
"This disturbing decision ignores the science showing that killing more cougars is counterproductive," said Sophia Ressler, staff attorney and Washington wildlife advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Lethal methods of cougar management have proven to cause more problems than they solve. The commission should have rejected the terrible choices before it, but it seems the group was set on killing more cougars from the beginning."
Despite the fact that many called for more cougar hunting in response to public safety fears, Thorburn said that is not why the commission changed hunting rules.
"We were really clear that what we were looking at today had to do with hunter opportunity and harvest management," she said. "And really was not directly dealing with the concerns that have been brought to us by the community."