WA Legislature Update

A bill that extends hound hunting for cougars in select Eastern Washington counties for another five years is one step closer to passage today.

Earlier this week, seven of 13 representatives on a House committee said Substitute Bill 5356 should be passed, and yesterday it was sent to the Rules Committee for a second reading. If it doesn’t get held up there, it would go to the floor of the House for a vote. It has already been passed out of the Senate.

Chasing the wild cats with dogs was made illegal with passage of Initiative 655 in 1996 — a majority voted in favor of it in all 39 counties of the state — but afterward, cougar complaints spiked.

Since 2004, a “pilot” project has allowed limited hunts in Okanogan, Ferry and other counties. It has twice been extended. Without another, the program would end after 2011.

Governed by a permit and quota system, this past season a total of 84 permits to kill 72 cougars (but only 28 females) were available to put in for in five counties. Hunting opened back on Dec. 1, but is now closed as quotas have been met in all the units.

The House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources’ recommendation came a week after it had a public hearing. Those testifying in favor included two game managers at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, three representatives from the farming community and state Senator Bob Morton. They argue that there have been fewer cougar complaints since the program began and it allows for more selective harvesting of trophy males than by so-called boot hunters who may happen into a cougar during deer or elk season and kill it regardless of sex or size.

Those opposed included PAWS, Conservation Northwest and a private citizen. They said that hunting destabilizes populations and leads to more trouble-making orphan males. More of CNW’s arguments are posted online.

Chairman Brian Blake, a Southwest Washington Democrat, joined the six Republicans on the House committee in voting in favor of the bill while the other six Democrats all voted against it.

Earlier this month, the bill was recommended for passage on a 5-1 vote by the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources & Marine Waters, and then the full chamber on a 37-11 vote which saw numerous Democrats join most Republicans in favor of the bill.

Another bill that would have extended the hound hunting program indefinitely, HB 1124, has not made it out of the House.

In other legislative news, HB 1340, which would strengthen penalties for so-called wildlife spree killings, has made its way through one chamber of the legislature and is also awaiting action in the Senate’s Rules Committee.

SB 5661, requiring rather than merely encouraging commercial fishermen to report lost gear within 48 hours, was placed in the Senate’s X File and is dead, a supporter says.

And earlier this week, WDFW warned that without passage of the Discover Pass (SB 5622 and HB 1796), some fishing and hunting access sites may have to be closed due to lack of General Fund money for maintenance.

A bill still in progress, the pass would force users to pay $30 to access WDFW, DNR and State Parks lands that are managed for “outdoor recreation or fish and wildlife conservation,” according to a Senate staff summary.

Hunters and anglers would be charged just $7, but that price break would only extend to WDFW lands — and it appears that 84 percent of that money would actually go to State Parks. We’d need to buy the $30 job to fish and hunt on affected DNR lands and fish on state parks.

After lawmakers asked WDFW to determine which facilities are in danger of closing if the bills aren’t passed, the agency drew up a list of criteria to figure out which wildlife areas and water access sites it might have to shut the gate.

According to spokeswoman Madonna Luers in Spokane, WDFW would grade towards properties which are used more so by nonhunters and nonanglers.

One example she gave was camping areas at Wooten Wildlife Area, which she says are mostly used by partiers who descend on summer weekends and often leave messes that must be cleaned up for safety, aesthetic and liability reasons.

It is, of course, also home to the Tucannon Chain of Lakes, eight bank-only fisheries which open March 1 for trout angling, and is a good jumping-off base for turkey hunters.

Another closure possibility is the boat launch on Liberty Lake east of Spokane. In summer, she says it is used exclusively by Jet Skiiers and waterskiiers who also apparently aren’t aware that they need to buy parking passes.

“And that’s what we’re trying to target,” says Luers. “Hunters and fishers have been carrying the load.”

And, finally, lurking out there still is SSB 5669, which would merge WDFW, State Parks and the Recreation and Conservation Office into a Department of Fish, Wildlife and Recreation. Not much has been written about it since late February when Senators tweaked the original bill to retain the Fish & Wildlife Commission’s oversight of WDFW.

Today is the last day for lawmakers to read committee reports from the opposite house, except material from budgetary and transportation committees.

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