In what’s believed to be a first, Governor Jay Inslee has ordered the Fish & Wildlife Commission to reverse a decision, this one involving slightly increased cougar quotas in parts of Eastern Washington this season.
In essence, in a “last-minute amendment” proposed this spring by one of its members, the citizen panel agreed to add one to three cougars above what state lion managers had originally recommended for a number of game management units, and that raised the potential kill to more than the 12 to 16 percent that commission documents considered sustainable, reads an Oct. 19 letter from the governor to the Humane Society of the United States.
Inslee said that that didn’t follow proper procedures because the proposal was “substantially different” from the original, which had been put out for public comment.
HSUS had appealed to Inslee about errors in the rulemaking process after the commission denied a petition by them, as well as Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Mountain Lion Foundation, Predator Defense, The Cougar Fund, The Lands Council, Wolf Haven International and former WDFW staffer Gary Koehler, to go back to what WDFW had originally proposed for this season.
The tweak occurred in April during the annual meeting when game managers present their final recommendations for the year’s cougar, deer, elk and other hunting seasons for the commission’s approval. Those are vetted through public comment periods.
But looking to ameliorate the increasing numbers of another toothsome critter in Eastern Washington, Commissioner Miranda Wecker of Naselle proposed the amendment, which, for instance, raised the cougar guideline in Game Management Unit 117, Huckleberry, from six to eight lions, to eight to 10.
“The logic is that we have tremendous social conflict under way,” she explained during the April 9-10 meeting. “I don’t believe that in any of these GMUs the small changes that I’ve proposed will make a difference in the health of cougar populations. I’ve been assured by staff that is the case … It will have a beneficial effect, I believe, of giving some consideration to that communities that live in these GMUs in which wolf packs are now operating.”
The former longtime chairman of the commission, Wecker has been very attuned to and watchful over the recolonization of wolves in the state and the effects thereof, and generally has been very supportive of Washington’s hunters and anglers while ensuring the long-term viability of fish and wildlife here.
The effect of her proposal raised the harvest guideline to 17 to 21 percent in a number of northeast, southeast, Okanogan and east-central Cascades game management units.
Put on the spot at the meeting, WDFW’s carnivore manager Donny Martorello allowed that harvest rates above 16 percent might mean fewer adults on the landscape and more overlapping subadult male territories, but he also told the commission that he didn’t think the change would affect the population size.
The commission voted 7-1 in favor, with Commissioner Jay Holzmiller dissenting and Commissioner Jay Kehne absent.
In August, the commission also voted 7-1 to deny HSUS’s petition of that decision and return to the original proposal.
So on Sept. 21, HSUS appealed to Inslee, and in his letter yesterday to the organization, he states:
“Transparency and openness in state government are essential in order to maintain the trust of the public. Because the effect of the Commission’s late-minute amendment to the proposed rule substantially differed from the proposed rule, I am directing the commission to amend WAC 232-28-297 and restore the harvest rate to the level in the proposed rulemaking, and I am also directing the Commission to open a public comment period, pursuant to APA requirements regarding the amended proposal to increase the cougar harvest rate. Only after engaging in the APA-required procedures may the Commission change the cougar harvest rate.”
HSUS’s Washington director Dan Paul said he “applauded” the governor’s rescinding of the commission’s “arbitrary and haphazard increase to the cougar hunt quota.”
“To make such an important decision without considering the recommendations of Department biologists and the years of data on cougar population sustainability, nor even allowing a meaningful public discussion on the aggressive hunting increase is a failure in their duties as public servants. The public’s trust in wildlife management has been restored because of Governor Inslee’s commitment towards transparency and valuing the stability of our cougar population,” Paul said in an email to Northwest Sportsman.
We’re awaiting comment from Wecker.
(Of note, a month before she made her amendment, she was the target of a failed attempt by the Governor’s Office to remove her from the commission.)
In the meanwhile, WDFW spokesman Bruce Botka said that to his knowledge, the agency didn’t know of a governor ordering a Fish & Wildlife Commission’s decision reversed, but he was checking with the panel’s staff on that.
He noted that his office had already planned on reviewing cougar harvest levels next year and for the following season.
“WDFW staff will work with our assistant attorneys general and the members of the commission to identify rulemaking options going forward,” Botka said.