By PHUONG LE | Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — Gov. Jay Inslee has reversed a state wildlife panel’s decision to expand cougar hunting in areas of Washington occupied by wolves.

Inslee sided with The Humane Society of the United States and other conservation groups, which appealed a decision by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to raise cougar quotas in known wolf territories.

The governor agreed that the panel improperly applied state law when it increased the cougar harvests through a last-minute amendment. The panel approved a rule that was substantially different from one it had proposed and didn’t allow the public an opportunity to comment, Inslee wrote Monday in a letter to the Humane Society informing the group of his decision.

In April, the commission increased the cougar harvest rate in 14 areas of the state as a way to ease tensions in communities over the state’s growing wolf population. Gray wolves are endangered in Washington and cannot be hunted. There are 16 confirmed wolf packs, all in eastern Washington.

The commission, a citizen panel that sets policy for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, considered a proposed rule that set the maximum limits at 16 percent of local populations, keeping with previous levels. However, at its April 10 meeting, the panel approved a last-minute amendment to increase cougar quotas up to 21 percent in areas with confirmed wolf packs.

The increase was designed to provide relief to communities beleaguered by wolves and other predators, Commissioner Miranda Wecker said in a statement at the time. Some commissioners said the change wouldn’t hurt the state’s cougar population.

Dan Paul, Washington state director for the Humane Society, on Tuesday applauded the governor’s decision. “To make such an important decision without considering the recommendations of Department biologists and the years of data on cougar population sustainability, nor even allowing a meaningful public discussion on the aggressive hunting increase is a failure in their duties as public servants,” Paul said in a statement.

The commission office said Tuesday it was exploring its options. It referred other questions to the governor’s office.

The governor said he is directing the commission to get public comment before putting the higher quotas in place.

In August, the commission rejected a petition by conservation and other groups asking it to rescind its increased quotas. The commission said at the time that it would revisit the issue next spring.

Eight groups and a former research director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife challenged the decision, saying it wasn’t based on scientific recommendations.

They pointed to studies showing that increased cougar harvests may disrupt the cougars’ social structure and could actually increase conflicts between the big cats and humans or livestock. They filed an appeal with the governor last month.

In 2014, hunters killed 163 cougars from an estimated statewide population of 3,600 animals, according to state data.