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Judge rules Klickitat County sheriff's 'dangerous wildlife policy' isn't illegal

Greg Hume
A Washington judge decided on Monday the Klickitat County sheriff’s policy about killing dangerous wildlife can continue.

Wildlife advocates sued Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer after he deputized hound handlers to track and kill cougars.

A Washington judge has decided not to stop the way the Klickitat County sheriff handles what he considers dangerous cougars.

The Mountain Lion Foundation, a wildlife advocacy group, sued Sheriff Bob Songer and the county after Songer deputized a handful of hound handlers to track and kill cougars he considers a public safety concern.

Activists have called the sheriff’s policy a death warrant for cougars in Klickitat County.

According to the lawsuit, the sheriff’s cougar management policy is illegally using hound handlers to kill cougars. A 1996 voter initiative banned hunting cougars with hounds in Washington, except in life-threatening situations.

“This is an end run around of the permission of the Legislature and our voters who passed this law in 1996,” said Adam Karp, attorney for the wildlife activists, at a recent Benton County Superior Court hearing.

Karp has argued Songer doesn’t have the authority to manage cougars in this way and therefore doesn’t have the authority to deputize hound handlers.

Monday’s ruling by Judge Samuel Swanberg in Benton County Superior Cour came after a hearing Friday. David Quesnel, prosecuting attorney for Klickitat County, said in the hearing that this policy does not go beyond Songer’s authority because sheriffs generally have significant discretion about how and when to enforce the law.

“The idea that during the enactment of the constitution that there would be any question whatsoever that the sheriff or any local constable would not have the ability to protect the citizens from predatory animals, such as black bears, cougars and bobcats, would have simply been laughable,” Quesnel said.

The sheriff and deputized hound handlers have broad authority to manage fish and wildlife because they are ex-officio Fish and Wildlife officers, Quesnel said.

Karp said that’s not the case. The hound handlers are called to track and kill cougars just because they’ve been seen in the area, he said, when most of the big cats had not threatened people or animals.

According to call logs, the handlers have been called out at least 63 times over the last two years. At least 19 cougars have been killed.

In an earlier interview, Songer said it’s his job to protect livestock, pets and especially people from cougars.

Karp said the Mountain Lion Foundation could continue the lawsuit, which has one other legal claim seeking to halt the sheriff’s dangerous wildlife policy. The group could also appeal this decision to the state Supreme Court.

This story has been updated.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.