CLE ELUM, Wash. - In northeastern Washington, the state has stepped up hunting in response to soaring numbers of complaints about cougars, including two attacks on toddlers. A bill signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire last week could expand the cougar killing.
But results from studies by biologists such as Ben Maletzke question this traditional approach to cougar management.
Instead of reducing conflicts between cougars and humans, heavy hunting seems to make the problems worse, says Robert Wielgus, Maletzke's graduate adviser and director of Washington State University's Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory.
"It goes against the grain of what we've been doing for decades," Wielgus says.
Killing large numbers of cougars creates social chaos, Wielgus and his students found. Trophy hunters often target adult males, which act as a stabilizing force in cougar populations. The adults police large territories and kill or drive out young males. With the grown-ups gone, the "young hooligans" run wild, Wielgus says.
"Every time you kill a dominant male, about three of these young guys come for the funeral."
Evidence suggests cougars under two years of age, just learning to live on their own, account for the majority of run-ins with people and domestic animals.
Before 1996, hunters killed an average of 156 cougars a year. The harvest rate has increased more than 40 percent, to an average of 225 animals.