Cougar populations face deadly threats as legal hunting and depredation killings expand into former climate refuge: ‘We are in their home’

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has seen an influx of new human residents in recent years, as pollution-driven factors such as rising temperatures and extreme weather events have led many people to seek out more temperate climates. Unfortunately, those people have been bad news for the existing wildlife on the peninsula, especially cougars.

What is happening?

It is legal, during hunting season and with a permit, for residents to hunt cougars in Washington state. But additional cougars are being killed by the state itself after people report encounters with the wild animals.

An extensively reported piece in Inside Climate News detailed how many of the new Washington Peninsula residents have begun keeping livestock without adequate protections in place, which can attract younger cougars learning to hunt. The residents then typically call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which dispatches wardens to kill the cats.

Over the past five years, an average of 83 cougars have been killed every year. That’s two-and-a-half times the average over the previous five years. Meanwhile, the human population is only increasing.

Why is this concerning?

“We have to expect [cougars] are present because we are in their home,” Vanessa Castle, a Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe member and project field technician who works to protect the cougars, told Inside Climate News.

If cougars continue to face both loss of habitat to humans as well as the constant threat of human violence every time they step out of the woods, their populations will soon be under severe threat.

Killing off wildlife animals doesn’t harm just those animals — it affects entire ecosystems. Cougars increase plant diversity by controlling herbivore populations, feed other animals with the carcasses they leave behind, and increase the flow of nutrients through the ecosystem in various other ways.

This information seems to be lost on many of the peninsula’s residents, who view the cats as no more than a problem.

“It’s just not a friendly place for cats because of the number of livestock and the frequency with which people pull a gun here,” said Mark Elbroch, an ecologist who codirects the Olympic Cougar Project as head of the conservation organization Puma Program for Panthera. “That’s why we have these huge numbers of cats dying from depredation.”

What is being done to help the cougars?

Part of the problem, Elbroch said, is that most people lack sufficient education about how to peacefully live with cougars.

“There’s just endless ways we could coexist with these animals,” Elbroch said. “We just have to figure it out.”

One of the solutions he and other experts suggest is building a wildlife corridor that connects the peninsula to mainland Washington, giving the cougars more room to roam.

Castle suggested better educating the newcomers to the state, especially those who want to keep livestock. “For all the outsiders moving here, realtors need to hand them a ‘welcome to cougar country’ pamphlet,” she said.

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