By Ann McCreary
New rules approved by state wildlife commissioners that permit dog handlers to train dogs to chase cougars and other wildlife in Washington raise concerns about potential abuse of hound hunting, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-3 on Jan. 29 to finalize new rules allowing the use of dogs to chase cougars, bears or bobcats that have had conflicts with livestock or are considered a public safety concern.
The rules implement a law passed in 2019 that required the department to establish a program allowing handlers to train dogs to non-lethally pursue cougars and other wildlife. The rules specify who can participate in the program and what requirements they must follow.
State law allows Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to use dogs to hunt or pursue black bears, cougars or bobcats if there is “a public safety need; to protect livestock, domestic animals, and private property; for scientific purposes; or to protect endangered species.” But due to earlier established laws regarding hound hunting in Washington, handlers have had to train their dogs outside the state.
Washington voters outlawed the use of hounds by recreational hunters through an initiative in 1996. The training program approved by the wildlife commission allows the use of hounds in situations not covered in the 1996 law.
Not enough protection
“I’m very concerned about the potential for abuse of hound hunting under this newly created program,” said Sophia Ressler, a Seattle-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Without additional safeguards and staff for enforcement, this new program doesn’t appear up to the task of protecting wildlife or the will of the voters who passed the initiative banning hound hunting,” Ressler said in a press release.
The new rules don’t adequately protect cougars by prohibiting pursuit during vulnerable time periods, such as their birthing season, Ressler said. The rules also lack requirements for controlling hounds or reporting requirements to provide public transparency, she said.
“These rules don’t go far enough to protect wildlife or hounds,” said Ressler. “The rules don’t contain the necessary components to make sure the law is being followed and wildlife is protected. Bottom line, this is yet another attack on the state’s cougars. We’ll be closely monitoring the department’s implementation and enforcement of it.”
The new rules require hound handlers to coordinate with WDFW enforcement staff to get approval to train on specific days in specific areas. They must keep logbooks on where they traveled, cougar evidence and corresponding GPS coordinates, and if any weapon was discharged.
Last spring the wildlife commission increased the total number of cougars that can be killed by hunters by almost 50%, which is an additional stressor to the cougar population, Ressler said.
Hound hunting in Washington has been controversial, the Center for Biological Diversity said in its release. In 2018 the Center sued WDFW, challenging a program that allowed the use of hounds to hunt black bears on private timber lands, on the grounds that the bears were harming trees. Last October the court invalidated the program, finding the department had been illegally granting permits to private hunters to kill bears using hounds and bait.