Using dogs to hunt or pursue black bears, cougars or bobcats would be allowed only with the authorization of the state Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), under legislation heard today by the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

“The people of Washington made clear in a 1996 ballot initiative that they didn’t want cougars, bobcats or bears hunted unless they pose a clear threat to livestock or other property,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), sponsor of Senate Bill 5613. “This law has worked fairly well except in Klickitat County, where the sheriff appears to be hunting cougars for sport.”

Under current law, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs may kill a cougar, bobcat or black bear that poses a significant threat and may also use dogs to track and hunt the animals. Most sheriffs’ departments across the state defer to WDFW in identifying whether an animal is a problem predator; in Klickitat County, however, the sheriff regularly organizes hunts using dogs to track and kill cougars, to the dismay of animal rights groups and organizations trying to protect endangered cougar populations.

The Mountain Lion Foundation sued the county and sheriff in an effort to retire the practice, but the court ruled that state statute gives sheriffs the authority to decide whether an animal presents a threat.

“My bill would not prevent any sheriff or deputy from killing a cougar, bear or bobcat that poses an immediate risk,” Van De Wege said. “My bill simply prohibits them from staging a hunt using dogs unless they’ve gotten WDFW approval for the hunt.

“If an animal poses a clear threat to public safety or property, there’s no question it must be dealt with. But there’s a big difference between protecting the public and citing public safety as an excuse to justify sport hunting.”

SB 5613 is scheduled to be voted out of committee on Thursday, which would make it available to be called to the floor for a vote of the full Senate in the coming days.