Shortly before noon on Jan. 25, 2020, Brian Ostenson called the sheriff ’s office in Goldendale, WA, to report he’d found a deer carcass near a tree about 30 yards from his house. The carcass wasn’t there yesterday, said Ostenson, a man in his early 70s who lives about 14 miles east of town in a sparsely populated rural area that has a mix of open fields and wooded streams. Ostenson told Deputy Sheriff Erik Beasley that even though he hadn’t seen cougars in the area, he believed one had killed the deer. The deer was partially buried beneath forest debris, which is how cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, often hide their kills so they can feed on them again later.
Beasley called his boss, Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer, who advised him to call out a hound hunter. Shortly after arriving on the scene, hunter Lance Fields and his dogs treed a juvenile cougar and shot it. While continuing to search for the cougar’s mother for several more hours, Fields found a second juvenile cougar and killed it, too. He cut the ears off both animals, so they couldn’t be claimed as trophies, and took some photos.
The two cougars killed by Fields are among at least 16 that Sheriff Songer, a blithe man in his 70s who was first elected sheriff in 2014, estimates his hound hunters have killed since he created a special program in 2019 to manage cougars, bobcats, and bears. Eight deputized hound hunters work unpaid for Songer as members of his 130-person volunteer posse in Klickitat County, an area of southern Washington that’s nearly the size of Delaware, but has a population of only about 22,000 people.
The sheriff, who wears a buzz cut and wire-frame glasses and speaks bluntly and breathlessly, testified to Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission in March 2020, explaining how his program works: He encourages citizens to call 911 to report cougar sightings, and if the sighting is credible, he authorizes a hound hunter to immediately track and kill the cougar.
“I’m not here to ask you for permission to do something,” Songer said. “I’m doing it anyway.”
His bold attitude is one of the reasons the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a far-right organization, named Songer “Sheriff of the Year” in 2019. So-called “constitutional sheriffs” assert their right to protect Americans from gun restrictions, illegal immigrants, federal management of public lands, pandemic-related public health measures such as mask mandates, and other perceived threats to individual liberty.
Songer, who sometimes wears a hat proclaiming “God, Guns & Guts Made America,” may be the first constitutional sheriff to claim wildlife management as part of his portfolio. But he probably won’t be the last.
DECLARATION OF WAR
Until August 2019, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) responded to most cougar complaints in Klickitat County. WDFW employees confirmed sightings and determined whether a cougar had killed any livestock or domestic animals, or behaved in a way that threatened public safety—and prescribed the appropriate response, ranging from a cougar “removal” (that is, using dogs to tree the cougar, then shooting it) to simply talking with the property owner about ways to avoid conflicts with cougars.
An Aug. 22, 2019, report of a cougar attacking a deer changed all that. Unlike the report called in by Ostenson, this incident five months earlier occurred within the city limits of Goldendale, the county seat, which has a population of about 3,500. By the time it was over, several law enforcement officers and a hound hunter had pursued the cougar around a residential neighborhood and shot it multiple times before killing it.
Songer decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. Days later, he announced that his office, not the state wildlife agency, would provide the primary response to conflicts involving dangerous wildlife. He and his deputies would respond to all such reports in the county and would have the authority to use dogs to track down and kill animals deemed to be a threat to public safety. Songer had effectively declared war on cougars in Klickitat County. Hound hunting has been illegal in Washington since 1996. However, state law contains an exception that allows government employees and their agents to hunt cougars, bobcats, and bears “while acting in their official capacities for the purpose of protecting livestock, domestic animals, private property, or the public safety.” Unhelpfully, the law doesn’t bother to define “public safety” or what it means to “protect property.” Because of this loophole, state wildlife authorities have thus far been unable—or unwilling—to stop Songer’s program.
I’m not here to ask you for permission. I’m doing it anyway. – Sheriff Songer
Wildlife enthusiasts and local residents concerned about the number of cougars shot by hound hunters say these animals should not be harassed or dispatched simply because they have been spotted in an area where humans also live.
“Most of the incidents really are not a safety risk,” says Wildlife Protection Manager Haley Stewart of the Humane Society of the United States. “These are sightings in areas where cougars are known to live…a cougar just being a cougar.”
The Humane Society says the sheriff ’s program is undermining wildlife management and violating the ban on hound hunting. It’s called on Washington’s governor, wildlife director, and attorney general “to immediately end this illegal program.” So far, though, both the attorney general’s office and WDFW have maintained that the sheriff is acting within his rights.
“It’s a legal gray area,” says Denise Peterson of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a California-based nonprofit group that advocates for cougars.
That leaves the sheriff free to use his own judgment, and in his view any cougar seen in a pasture or near a home warrants a lethal response. “My job is public safety,” he says. “Never on my watch do I want to have to come up to a house, knock on the door, and tell the parents that we found little Johnny down by the river, half-eaten by a cougar.”
The sheriff ’s policy relies on an assumption that cougar experts say is fundamentally wrong: that cougars have overpopulated during the past several years because regular hound hunting was outlawed. Never mind that hound hunting has been banned for 24 years. More important, the experts say, cougar populations have remained relatively stable during that time. In Washington, the statewide population is roughly estimated at 2,300 independent-aged animals.
Fatal attacks by cougars are extremely rare. There have been only 17 documented fatalities in the United States in the past 100 years, including one in Washington in 2018, the first fatal attack in the state since 1924. For comparison, domestic dogs kill 30 to 50 people per year, and deer-vehicle collisions kill about 200.
Studies of collared, radio-tracked cougars show these animals spend a surprising amount of time on the fringes of human habitation. “They are very secretive,” says WDFW carnivore research scientist Brian Kertson. “They make their living staying out of sight.”
In the past, a cougar passing through a field or prowling the woods adjacent to a residential neighborhood usually went unnoticed, but sightings have soared along with the use of trail cameras and home-surveillance systems. However, increased sightings do not correlate with increased population numbers, Kertson cautions. Nor, he says, do they correlate with increased livestock depredations or other human-cougar conflicts.
Cougars are highly territorial animals, and every cougar population has two components: residents and transients. The resident population, composed of adults with established home ranges up to 200 square miles in size, tends to be very stable and predictable. The transient component of the cougar population is composed of adults (mostly males) and subadults (between 1 and 2 years old) trying to establish home ranges. Paradoxically, increased hunting of cougars actually can increase the risk of human-cougar conflicts by removing mature resident cougars, which creates a vacancy that younger migrants attempt to fill.
“Instead of the one male, you might get two or three that are not old enough to practice territoriality and defend a home range,” says WDFW’s bear and cougar specialist, Rich Beausoleil. These animals may be more likely to run afoul of humans because they tend to be less familiar with the local landscape.
If the sheriff ’s goal is to have fewer or better-behaved cougars, his program is the wrong approach. And if the goal is to prevent cougars from ever going near people or their structures, that’s an impossible task. There is no place in Washington that is more than 13.6 miles from any human development, a distance easily covered by a male cougar on border patrol.
Everyone agrees that cougars do, in some situations, attack livestock, pets and, on rare occasions, humans. However, science and the sheriff do not agree on what constitutes dangerous cougar behavior.
increasing hunting of cougars can actually increase the risk of human-cougar conflicts.
“There is a misperception that seeing cougars in particular places at particular times correlates to abnormal behavior,” says Kertson. For example, some people wrongly believe it’s abnormal to see a cougar in broad daylight. Others wrongly believe there’s something amiss if a cougar doesn’t run away at the first sight of a human. Where the general public saw a cougar “stalking” a Utah hiker for six long minutes in a recent viral video, some experts instead saw a protective mother more determined to evict the hiker than to harm him.
When people see a cougar, they tend to interpret its behavior through a filter of fear. “People have an innate fear of cougars,” says Kertson. “They are big animals with big eyes.”
In Klickitat County, where many residents display signs thanking the sheriff for protecting their liberty, Songer is “creating a hysteria around mountain lions and bears,” says Stephen Capra of the anti-trapping group Footloose Montana, who visited the county with Peterson last year to meet with residents who are upset about the cougar shootings. “He’s built an army to go kill them.”
POWER OF THE COUNTY
Songer, who has never killed a cougar himself but has eaten cougar burgers prepared by a friend (“kind of a sweet taste,” he recalls), is part of a quasi-political movement led by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which was founded in 2011 and claims a membership of 400, of which about 160 are currently in office. Sheriffs are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but constitutional sheriffs believe they’re answerable only to the Constitution and voters. “The governor of the state of Washington is not my boss…or the feds,” Songer said in a speech at last year’s CSPOA convention. In November 2020, he announced that his deputies would not be enforcing any of the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Songer, who has spent his entire 50-year career in law enforcement, is a darling of far-right groups. He makes frequent appearances at political rallies and on talk radio. He came to national attention in 2019 when he was a guest on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars program along with Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer.
During the last election cycle, at a rally organized by the Klickitat County Republican Party, Songer called the Black Lives Matter movement a “Marxist, Socialist, Communist organization” and said it’s tied to Antifa. “There’s a master plan to overthrow our government,” he said.
Songer’s language echoes that of former Arizona sheriff and CSPOA founder Richard Mack, who has issued warnings about a “new world order” that sheriffs must stop. Mack has also served on the board of the anti-government militia organization Oath Keepers.
CSPOA has its ideological roots in Posse Comitatus, a far-right movement that spread racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-government tropes and led to the formation of citizen militias in the 1980s, says Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, an Oregon-based civil rights organization. Posse Comitatus—Latin for “power of the county”—refers to citizens mobilized to defend counties and suppress mayhem, usually with a sheriff as their leader and last line of defense against the federal government.
Despite their lofty claims of power, some constitutional sheriffs aspire to even higher office. Loren Culp, who was named CSPOA’s “Police Chief of the Decade” last year, was the Washington Republican gubernatorial candidate in the 2020 general election and won more than 1.7 million, or 43 percent, of the votes cast. Sheriff Mike Carpinelli, who endorsed Mack on a CSPOA website, is running for New York governor in 2022.
Cougar advocates worry Songer’s program will spread to other counties. In an email to colleagues, WDFW cougar specialist Beausoleil expressed concern that Songer was killing more cougars than WDFW records showed, and noted that Songer “stated that if any other counties were interested in doing what he is doing, he would show them how—and this could become even more of a concern.”
WDFW recently assembled a Cougar Safety Team with representatives from its wildlife, enforcement, and public affairs divisions to address public concerns. There’s talk of revising laws that govern public safety removals and adding local elected officials to the Cougar Safety Team.
During a Fish and Wildlife Commission briefing and public comment session on cougar safety last summer, conducted on Zoom, a Klickitat County resident who has been active in a local effort to replace Songer posted a written question for the commissioners: “K.C. Sheriff is indiscriminately killing cougars. What are you going to do about that?” There was no reply.
CONSTITUTIONAL SHERIFFS: COUNTY FIRST
Three more lawmen who believe their power trumps federal and state law.
Sheriff Scott Nichols: Franklin County, Maine
“(Sheriffs) do not have to abide by the political whims of municipal or state organizations,” posted Nichols, who gained notoriety after comparing Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 restrictions to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Sheriff Dar Leaf: Barry County, Michigan
Leaf equivocated on the goons accused of plotting to kidnap and kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “A lot of people are angry with the governor and they want her arrested, so are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt?” Leaf wondered. “It doesn’t say if you’re in elected office that you’re exempt from that arrest.”
Sheriff Tony Mace: Cibola County, New Mexico
At an anti–gun control rally, Mace declared his county a “Second Amendment sanctuary” after a countywide vote passed to disregard recent New Mexico gun control legislation.
Dawn Stover is a writer based in White Salmon, Washington. A version of this story originally appeared on Columbia Insight, an environmental news website covering the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin.