State wildlife officials, however, have neither confronted Songer about his thinly disguised cougar-extermination operations nor contravened him in any way. Instead, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) most recent cougar policies seemingly opened the door for other sheriffs around the state to resume hunting cougars with hound packs, after the state wildlife commission green-lighted the training of people to hunt with that method.
A law unto himself
Songer, as the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR) explored earlier this year, has over the past couple of years aligned his law enforcement operation with the radical right across several fronts, including anti-vaccination causes, particularly through Ammon Bundy’s theocratic “People’s Rights” network. Songer also promoted last summer’s hoax rumors claiming that “antifa arsonists” were secretly responsible for the wildfires that swept the West Coast.
And he was one of several “constitutionalist” law enforcement officers—including former gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp—who refused to enforce the state’s new restrictive gun laws, which were approved by over 60% of voters in 2018. Songer declared the new law “is unconstitutional on several grounds. I’ve taken the position that as an elected official, I am not going to enforce that law.”
Songer’s little revolt against Inslee’s COVID-related health restrictions in 2020 was of a similar nature. As Charles Bethea reported in The New Yorker, Songer led a group of fellow “constitutional” sheriffs in a revolt against enforcing the shutdown of businesses and masking requirements in his county.
These “constitutionalists” believe conspiracist far-right theories that the sheriff of each county is the supreme law of the land, capable of overruling federal and state laws as well as the judiciary itself in determining which laws are “constitutional.” The sheriffs in the group, like Culp, all are members of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, ex-sheriff Richard Mack’s nationwide organization that promotes these groundless theories, which extremists like Cliven and Bundy have leveraged to create armed standoffs with federal officers.
Songer forwarded a message from Mack to a number of his fellow sheriffs around the state declaring that Mack was “absolutely CORRECT in regards to his position that Sheriff’s and Peace Officers need to follow their oath of office and support the U.S. Constitution.” He added, “No Governor’s proclamations or orders can override your liberties without violating your Constitutional Rights even during a crisis.”
The COVID crusade
When state officials began lifting the pandemic restrictions in June 2021, Songer warned that he would declare a crusade if state officials ever tried to impose them again. On Facebook, he declared he would “arrest, detain and recommend prosecution” for any government workers or elected officials attempting to enforce any future public health guidances, such as social distancing or masking. He also sent the letter to local media organizations.
Songer said he took an oath to the “Supreme Judge of the Universe” as sheriff, and asserted that the U.S. and Washington State constitutions are built on Christianity.
“There has been a coordinated and constant effort by the media and some government agencies to justify the suspension or denial of God-given, constitutionally protected rights under a plea of emergency,” he wrote.
The sheriff’s threat to arrest local officials sent a chill through the community, particularly since his battle against COVID-19 measures was related to his other far-right crusades. The chair of the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners, Dave Sauter, noticed.
At a commission discussion of the letter in June, Sauter observed that he had concluded the letter was not limited to the governor’s health mandates. “The more I read it, it upsets me more, because… that is a general statement about any bureaucrat or government official, mayor, commissioner, whoever, that is perceived by a single individual, namely the sheriff, to be violating somebody’s constitutional rights, (and) is subject to arrest and detainment.”
“That is a chilling thing to say,” Sauter said. “That is the path to authoritarian regimes.”
The commission cosigned a letter prepared by county staff that read, in part: “Your statements were construed as threatening and intimidating to elected officials and county employees … Your comments implied the arrest, detention and recommended prosecution for following state mandates and laws that you may disagree with, without going through the court process and judicial system as deemed by the Constitution.”
The authoritarian undercurrent of Songer’s constitutionalism played out in other ways. The county’s prosecuting attorney, David Quesnel, has challenged Songer’s nonsensical constitutionalist arguments in public, noting that the sheriff could use the claims stipulated in his letter to arrest him for doing his job.
“Under the literal interpretation of his letter, I could be arrested and detained for prosecuting a felon or domestic abuser for having a firearm, because that interferes with his right to bear arms … I could be arrested and detained for prosecuting someone for driving on a suspended a license or under the influence of alcohol because that interferes with their right to travel,” Quesnel told the Board of Commissioners.
Worse, the sheriff’s bullying demeanor fed an environment ripe with anger that was directed at the Klickitat County Health Department. Director Erinn Quinn told the board that for the previous 15 months, her office dealt with an endless stream of threats and harassment from the public, adding that “while I feel my staff have been admirable in their ability to brush off these threats, threats of this nature coming from the sheriff himself are creating an environment where staff fear for their livelihood as public health employees.”
Quesnel similarly informed the board that he’d recently taken measures to install additional security measures for his family, adding: “I now have an attorney on retainer in case I’m arrested and detained by the sheriff,” the prosecutor said. “I don’t take well to threats.”
It first was rumored last week that Songer, 76, had contracted COVID-19 and was home ill with the disease, but Songer himself did not confirm it until this week, when he granted an interview to Northwest News Network. He claimed he had beaten the illness despite a number of longstanding pulmonary issues related to being a smoker for 50 years, including a double-bypass heart operation and a sectional lung removal in 2016.
“I’ve had pneumonia, bronchitis, all sorts of health problems associated with lungs,” he said. “So me going in, and them diagnosing me as COVID, didn’t mean squat to me. It meant I was fighting the same thing I’ve fought for several years.”
He boasted: “Bottom line is: I beat it. And I did it without taking vaccinations, without getting my shot, without none of that nonsense. And that’s my decision. I make that decision. Not the government.”
The sheriff told the interviewer he was unsure whether he might have infected any friends or family, as well as his sheriff’s office colleagues. Klickitat County currently has 66 active cases and a seven-day rate of 277 cases per 100,000 residents, marking the second-worst week of the pandemic there. Its vaccination rate is 39.5%.
The cougar killers
Mountain lions are indigenous to Klickitat County, and over the course of its history, there has never been a recorded attack by the large predators on any humans, let alone a fatal one. Indeed, there have only been two fatal cougar attacks in all of Washington State’s history.
Nonetheless, after a cougar chased a deer into the city limits of Goldendale, the county seat, in August 2019, and then was itself pursued by sheriff’s deputies around a residential area before it was killed, Songer announced that his office was going to respond on its own to increasing concerns among his constituents about more frequent confrontations with the big cats.
Those rising contacts have more to do with the increasing invasion of cougar habitat by humans than any increase in cougar numbers, which biologists say have largely remained stable for the past 50 years or so. However, after Washington voters banned the use of hounds for hunting cougars in 1996, a groundless legend has grown in rural areas that cougar populations have been dramatically increasing.
Songer, however, announced that he intended to form a sheriff’s posse with hounds for hunting down and eradicating problem cougars, bears, bobcats, and lynx. It was a direct stick in the eye to that ban. But Songer claimed that a provision of the law prohibiting the hound hunts—stipulating that government employees could be granted permission to use the hounds “while acting in their official capacities for the purpose of protecting livestock, domestic animals, private property, or the public safety”—was all that he needed to form his cougar-hunting posses.
Fliers put up around the county encourage residents to contact the sheriff’s office first with any sighting of a “dangerous predator,” rather than WDFW officers. The sheriff’s office makes no attempt to include WDFW. Over the course of the ensuing two years, Songer’s deputies have hunted down and killed 24 cougars, according to an independent count assembled by WDFW. It had to do so because Songer not only has locked state game wardens out of the process, he also has refused to cooperate with WDFW in providing information. (Songer told a Portland TV station in late 2019 that he had killed “about seven or eight” of the animals.)
The result of the program has been a death warrant for any cougar that has been reported to Songer’s office. Deputies with hounds have trespassed onto people’s properties in pursuit of cougars, and in at least one case simply left the cat’s corpse to rot on the property. There have been zero cases in which Songer’s deputies did not pursue and attempt to kill any cougar reported to them.
Essentially, Songer’s rationale has been that any cougar that comes within view of people—even if all it has done is appear under a tree or in the brush—is dangerous and a public safety threat. The sheriff’s policy asserts that a cougar is an immediate threat if there is “close proximity to people or domestic pets and livestock or abnormal behaviors.” Those behaviors include “proximity to houses, people, barns or corrals,” “aggressive behaviors,” and “absence of fear of humans.”
A survey by Columbia Insight found that “reported sightings typically lead to a hound hunt. Of 47 cougar calls made to the sheriff’s office between January 1 and July 27 of this year, only nine involved confirmed or suspected attacks on livestock or pets. None involved a direct threat to a human. In many cases, the caller reported seeing a cougar near a home or outbuilding, but in other cases the reporting party saw a cougar in a field or on a road.”
Joy Markgraf, a Klickitat County resident, told KPTV she called the sheriff herself, pleading with him to call off the hunts.
"I hate to hear hounds with a cougar up a tree. It just breaks my heart," she said. "Cougars are out here. This is country. And people who live in the country should try to live with wildlife."
Bob McCoy, board chairman of the Mountain Lion Foundation, says the result has essentially been a kind of open season on cougars in Klickitat County. “So what we’ve seen is a change in sort of the policy, where now sheriffs and specially assigned agents of counties are now going out and killing cougars independently of the department,” he told an interviewer. “So we’re seeing a very high increase in the number of cougars killed for so-called depredation and public safety. Essentially it could be a wholesale slaughter.”
WDFW officials try to closely monitor cougar kills as part of the agency’s population management program, and state regulations require the remains of any “dangerous predator” killed by law enforcement to be turned over to them for assessment and cataloging. Songer does none of that.
Kessina Lee, Fish and Wildlife's southwest region director, told the Columbia Gorge Chronicle that Songer has not shared any data on its predator killings with WDFW. "We've been disappointed by the lack of information sharing from the sheriff's office," Lee said.
In May, Klickitat deputies killed a black bear that was simply reported in the yard of a person who lived along a local highway, well outside the Goldendale town limits. When a deputy arrived with hounds and a game warden in tow, he reported to Songer that he could still see the bear in the person’s yard, so Songer told him to kill it. The deputy complied, and the game warden took possession of its carcass.
Songer has responded to any pushback on his cougar eradication program with the same imperious disregard he displayed regarding state gun laws and COVID-19 measures. He also rationalizes his behavior by fearmongering about the presence of cougars in the county he believes he rules.
“My job is public safety,” he told the state Wildlife Commission in a March 2020 meeting to discuss cougar policy. “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.”
He also made perfectly clear to the Fish and Game Commission that he did not consider their oversight powers to include him.
“I’m not here to ask you for permission to do something,” Songer said. “I’m doing it anyway.”
Songer has adamantly denied that he and his deputies have effectively declared open season on cougars. “We will not be out killing every dangerous animal that is out there,” the sheriff’s office replied to Facebook comments questioning his program. “We will deal with the ones that pose a threat.”
“Apparently what some of these people are talking about—that we’re just running around out there, hunting cougars down with our posse members for trophies—that is a flat lie,” Songer said in a phone interview with Northwest Public Broadcasting. “In fact, in our policy, if we had an employee or a volunteer that violates that law, they will be facing a lot of trouble … We’re not out to shoot cats.”
Local residents tell a different story, along with tales of how the sheriff and his deputies intimidate dissenters. A number of them who spoke to Columbia Insight insisted on anonymity because they said they feared the sheriff.
Activist Stephen Capra says he met with Songer to discuss the hunts, and when he asked the sheriff whether he intended to extirpate cougars, Songer admitted that was his goal.
“He’s built an army to go kill them,” says Capra. “The sheriff has rallied a culture war within his own community.”
And they respond to literally any sighting of a mountain lion. Multiple call logs from the sheriff's office and deputy reports demonstrate that deputies and hound handlers were dispatched to hunt cougars after a goose was killed near a house, when a cat was seen exiting a sheep pasture, as one laid under a treehouse, after a cougar was seen sitting on a rock not far from a house, and after a neighbor spotted one during a walk.
Songer’s program forced state Fish and Wildlife officials to hold hearings this year to discuss how to deal with increasing human-cougar conflicts, as well as the surge in law enforcement killings of the animals led by Songer. Prior to 2017, agencies killed an average of 50 cougars a year; for the past five years, that average is now up to 80.
Washington State legislators even included a proviso in this year’s WDFW budget requiring all state law enforcement agencies to file reports on the "number of cougars reported to the department as harvested by local government law enforcement agencies, training opportunities provided to local law enforcement agencies, and how cougar removals by local enforcement agencies impact the department's cougar management strategies." And it features an offer of state funds to agencies who participate.
It has a catch, though: Anyone accepting the fund would have to agree in writing that WDFW has authority over managing the cougars.
In most other regards, however, the WDFW has bent over backwards to accommodate Songer and his fellow constitutionalists. Rather than clamp down on the use of hounds, for instance, the Fish and Game Commission instead passed a new rule allowing for the training of people and hounds for the purpose of hunting cougars.
Recourse in the courts
In the meantime, Songer now faces a lawsuit filed this month by two county residents, Abigail Spring and David Berger, with the help of the Mountain Lion Foundation. The suit is seeking a court order restraining Songer from carrying out his cougar program. The petition to Benton County Superior Court asks for a Peremptory Writ of Prohibition, which would order Songer to cease further implementation of his so-called Dangerous Wildlife Policy and Procedures (DWPP).
Their attorney, Bellingham-based animal law specialist Adam Karp, insists that the clause of the state hound-hunting law that Songer cites to justify his posse does not actually grant the sheriff, his deputies, or members of the civilian posse the authority to both hunt cougars with hounds and implement the DWPP.
"The flaw in the Sheriff's position is that he embraces a prohibitory piece of legislation passed by initiative in 1996 as if it were a positive grant of authority," Karp wrote. He notes that the 1996 initiative that outlawed hound hunting for cougars only provided limited exceptions for “employees or agents of county, state, or federal agencies while acting in their official capacities” in situations to "(protect) livestock, domestic animals, private property, or the public safety."
"As the State has not expressly given the Sheriff authority to hunt with hounds, he lacks any legal justification for his own such conduct, and cannot delegate such non-authority to anyone else," Karp said.
The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that Songer’s use of hounds to hunt cougars is unconstitutional. It also seeks to strip the civilian posse of any credentials to hunt cougars at all, either with the use of hounds or any other means, and to bar the sheriff’s office from killing cougars without WDFW authorization.
“Sheriff Songer’s policy allows him and people he claims to have deputized—without any background checks or training—to chase cougars simply seen walking through agricultural areas, or feeding on deer they caught in the wild,” MLF Director Debra Chase explains. “Rather than killing lions just for being themselves, Songer should work with state wildlife agencies, his own citizens, and groups like ours to develop safe paths to coexistence in Klickitat County.”
As Bob McCoy observed:
The sheriffs don’t know the science, they’re feeling that “lead to the head” is an adequate way to protect people without thinking that well, you just opened up an area, another cougar is going to come in. Down in Goldendale a woman saw a cougar take down a deer. So the sheriff got his posse together apparently. They had to bring out a houndsman, finally located the cougar, chased it around a neighborhood shot at it six times before they finally killed this poor cat. And then in investigating found, it had also killed a doe and a faun and some raccoons and some possum. There was a cougar doing what cougars are supposed to do.
What’s unclear, however, is whether Songer will even recognize the jurisdiction of the court in his personal fiefdom, should it choose to rule against him in the lawsuit. He insisted during his dispute with Inslee over COVID-19 restrictions that “only the Washington State Supreme Court has the ability to declare something unconstitutional.”
Songer takes a similar approach to responding to the press. The sheriff ignored multiple queries by Daily Kos about his cougar policies. He recently explained his philosophy of press relations to the local Goldendale newspaper when it asked him about his recent bout with COVID-19. The sheriff said he turned away interview requests from other media because he frankly distrusted their motives.
“I told them I didn’t feel I’d get a fair shake from them,” Songer said. “I told them I believed they supported Antifa and Black Lives Matter. In my opinion, those organizations are Communist. And if you’re supporting that kind of nonsense, then I really don’t have much to say to you.”
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