Conservation and Trapping Science

Washington Fish and Wildlife likely opposed to spring bear hunt
Apr 5, 2022 07:02 ET

[Reprinted from original]

Mar. 12—Two of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's newly appointed members to the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission signaled Friday they are likely to oppose a controversial spring bear hunting season.

Commissioners Tim Ragen, of Skagit County, and Melanie Rowland, of Twisp, both indicated there is insufficient data on the black bear population for them to be comfortable supporting even a small level of harvest. The two made their positions known during an online meeting in which the commission collected more than two hours of impassioned public testimony on the proposed hunt and heard a briefing on it from Stephanie Simek, carnivore, furbearer and game section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In telegraphing their positions, the two new members joined commissioners Barbara Baker and Lorna Smith as likely no votes next Saturday when the commission is scheduled to act on the proposal. It may also set the stage for disagreements in June when the nine-member commission is scheduled to update its Game Management Plan, a guiding document for the department's wildlife managers and commissioners alike.

That document could be updated to either affirm or eliminate the spring black bear hunt altogether and possibly set new standards dictating how much scientific data must be collected before hunting of any species is allowed.

Simek told commissioners the proposal to issue 644 spring black bear permits, including 158 in the Blue Mountains, was likely to result in the harvest of fewer than 150 bears statewide. The proposal includes a prohibition on the taking of sows with cubs.

She said agency biologists use age and sex data collected from bears harvested during hunting seasons and DNA analysis of hair samples collected in separate density studies to estimate and monitor the black bear population. Both techniques result in an estimated Washington population of 20,000 to 25,000 bears, stable and robust enough, Simek said, to sustain the modest harvest proposed in the spring season.

"When we review the biological information, we have no indication we should close this opportunity," she said.

Ragen, a former director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said he needs much more precise information such as the minimum number of bears in specifically defined areas, a measure of that population's trend, an estimate of its maximum growth rate and an accounting of all human causes of mortality in addition to hunting.

"If you want to manage a population based on science, you've got to get this information. The department has the talent. They have gone out and done some density estimates using new DNA techniques and they have done a really nice job but they've got quite a ways to go," he said. "Nothing I have seen yet tells me that we really understand this population."

Rowland, a retired attorney for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said she agreed with Ragen and that the commission should apply the "precautionary principle" that she described as akin to purchasing home or automobile insurance even if one is unlikely to need it.

"If we say yes, there will be dead bears. As Commissioner Ragen said, we don't really know what effect that is going to have."

Commissioner Don McIsaac, of Clark County, countered that the state lacks that level of precision on many of the species that are hunted or fished for in the state and that determining how much should be known before harvesting is allowed is a question that could be answered while updating the Game Management Plan this spring.

"What should our policy be about scientific standards before we set any hunting seasons? If they are high enough, we probably won't have hunting seasons for several years for many species."

The spring bear season has been held annually in one form or another for several decades. Doubt was cast on the 2022 edition last fall when commissioners deadlocked on a vote approving permit levels. The tie vote made the season null. After the vote, Commissioner Fred Koontz resigned from the board that was already short one member. In his absence, the commission agreed to reconsider the season. Since that decision, Inslee appointed three new commissioners, bringing it to full strength. Commissioners will make their final decision next Saturday.

Dozens of people testified for and against the proposal during Friday's Zoom meeting. Supporters of the hunt, who outnumbered those against the proposal, said black bear hunting is cherished by many because it provides valuable recreational opportunities, food, time to bond with family and friends, allows one to enjoy nature, and is affirming of an outdoor and hunting lifestyle. Those opposed said hunting bears in the spring is unethical because the animals are still lethargic after emerging from their winter dens and it runs the risk of orphaning cubs.