Next week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commission will consider potential changes to Washington's cougar hunting rules.
The four possible changes come after constituents, mostly from Northeast Washington, raised concerns about public safety and increased cougar sightings and encounters.
In response, the commission asked WDFW staff to review cougar hunting rules earlier than planned. The commission is a nine-person citizen group appointed by the governor.
Many game species are managed based on regional population density estimates. That's not the case with cougars.
"The way we manage cougars in Washington is based on a statewide density," WDFW game division manager Anis Aoude said. "Because cougars use a landscape on such a large scale, it makes sense to manage in that way."
Using that statewide density estimate, WDFW has set harvest guidelines for individual Game Management Units based on the amount of habitat available. The harvest guidelines allow 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.
The first option that WDFW staff will present to the commission on March 14 would more or less maintain the status quo, although it would change the density calculation from a mean to a median.
That would add 32 cougars to the statewide estimate.
The second option would calculate the density of cougars using only adult cats. That change, he said, would reduce the number of cougars allowed to be killed under the state guidelines. However, subadult cougars killed by hunters would not be included in the overall count. Harvest data indicates that subadults make up roughly 30% of the statewide population.
The third option would change the harvest allowance for 19 GMUs that have exceeded the harvest guidelines during the early hunting season (Sept. 1 through Dec. 31) at least once in the past five years. Under this plan, WDFW would use this higher harvest number to set a new upper-harvest limit.
Two areas in Washington, however, had harvest numbers that, if adopted, would "exceed densities that research has shown is possible," he said.
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.
The fourth option is the same as the third, except the subadult cougars would not be included in the guidelines.
Although the decision to review hunting rules has been framed as being about addressing public safety concerns, Aoude said changes will likely have little impact on the cougar population.
That's because since 1996, hound hunting has been illegal in Washington. It's unlikely that boot hunting will reduce the population, he said.
What the changes could do, he said, is provide hunters with more opportunity.
Commissioners will be briefed on the options next week but will not make a decision until April.