Forum at fairgrounds puts spotlight on wolves, cougars

Officials and ranchers gathered to talk about the two predator species.

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WALLA WALLA -- There may have been beef for lunch, but cougars and wolves were the main items on the menu Tuesday at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.

In what may have been a first-ever meeting, ranchers, officials and wildlife workers gathered to talk about the two predators and hear information on the regulation and legal issues surrounding the animals.

The bulk of the meeting was taken up with discussions about the status of cougar and wolf populations and what options landowners have to deal with the predators. Steve Pozzanghera, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Eastern Washington regional director, presented data on both predators as well as fielded questions and comments from the audience.

Pozzanghera described how there has been a "huge evolution" in cougar management in Washington due to new methods of gathering information about populations through tracking collars and other methods. He outlined how WDFW sets harvest guidelines for cougar hunters and how it deals with "problem cats" that prey on livestock or pose a threat to humans.

During the discussion, several audience members expressed frustration over a ban on unrestricted use of dog packs to go after cougars, but efforts to overturn the ban have not been successful, even with the support of wildlife officials, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.

"The (state) game department went toe-to-toe with us to allow hound hunting, but the bill died two years ago," he said.

Shifting to wolves, Pozzanghera outlined how wolves in Washington are protected by federal and state laws and discussed the latest information on where they appear to have established themselves.

The latest information shows two new packs appear to have joined the five confirmed groups in the state, Pozzanghera said. However, he cautioned, wolves can be seen in an area one year, then vanish the next, as was the case of one suspected pack.

"We had a lot of activity last year, but this year ... we currently are sitting with zero fresh sign," he said.

In response to a comment from an audience member that the federal government was "dictating to us why we must have wolves here," Pozzanghera said state wildlife officials are bound by law on the matter.

"WDFW has been provided with a mandate to preserve, protect and perpetuate native species, including returning species," he said. "It would take a (change in the law) to say preserve, protect and perpetuate native species, except wolves."

During the meeting, Walla Walla County Commissioner Greg Tompkins urged ranchers and landowners to work with their county and state legislators on the issues.

"It took us two years to get to this point and the county commissioners, here and elsewhere, are willing to help," he said, but others must get involved as well. I'm willing to carry the water, but you're going to have to give me a bucket and handle to help out," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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