State drops spring bear hunt

Wildlife commissioners cite public sentiment and uncertain ecology

Washington hunters can no longer chase bears in the spring, at least not with a recreational permit.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 Friday, Nov. 18 to revoke Washington’s recreational spring bear hunt — which, barring 2022, has occurred nearly every spring since 1973 — following a year of deliberations and public outcry over the controversial practice.

According to fish and wildlife spokesperson Staci Lehman, the vote ends spring bear recreational permits indefinitely, although future commissioners — and the public — could ask to revisit the topic.

The commission left open the possibility of issuing spring bear permits to achieve management objectives, including for commercial timber damage, maintaining undulate populations and to reduce human-bear conflict, but Lehman said the commission has yet to make a decision on that issue.

At last week’s meeting, Commission Chair Barbara Baker, who voted to drop the spring bear hunt, said the majority of public sentiment opposed the hunt. Many spoke in opposition to the hunt at a November 2021 meeting, and over the last year, the commission has received 33,000 public comments on the issue, according to Baker.

Opponents of the hunt say the hunt is cruel because bears are weaker in the spring, and it often results in orphaned cubs, which have a low survival rate.

“A little over two years ago, the public figured out that we weren’t really scientifically justifying the reasons for the hunt as management objectives, and the public called us on it,” Baker said.

The commission paused 2022’s spring bear hunt last November after a 4-4 tie on the issue, citing the need for more information on the science of Washington black bear populations and ecology.

At the time, WDFW staff suggested the commission adopt a rule to issue 664 black bear permits across the state, predicting that 145 bears would be killed.

Commissioner Tim Ragen, who also voted to drop the hunt last week, said he wasn’t comfortable moving forward with the spring bear hunt based on the current level of science the commission was operating on.

“I think we have gotten into so many mistakes with our country in assuming we know what’s going on with wildlife populations and then watching them crash or failing to move them toward recovery,” Ragen said.

WDFW estimates there are between 25,000 and 35,000 bears in the state.

Washington also holds a black bear season in the fall, when hunters typically harvest around 2,000 bears, according to Commissioner Melanie Rowland.

Fall bear hunts have no limit on the number of permits hunters can purchase, as opposed to spring bear hunts, where hunters had to enter a drawing in order to receive a permit for bear harvest, according to Brian Calkins, the state’s regional wildlife program manager for Region 6, which includes Grays Harbor.

Calkins said his program started an effort several years ago to collect data on population subsets within different game management units in the region.

“In recent years we have not had a population level concern for black bears in our region,” Calkins said.

Anthony Novack, the district wildlife biologist for District 17, which includes Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties, sets the number of permits for spring bear hunts each year during years the hunt occurred.

In 2017 Novack reduced the number of spring bear permits by half — from 100 to 50 — in the Copalis management unit, which is north of Aberdeen, after a pattern of low hunter success rates.

Hunters in the Copalis unit only brought home one bear in 2013, he said.

While the hunt’s local productivity wasn’t enormous, Novack said, the spring bear season did provide hunters an opportunity for relative solitude in the spring since only a select number of permits were issued.

However, he also said the spring bear hunt is a “small piece of overall hunter opportunity” in District 17. “We’ll still have plenty of bears to go out and harvest in the fall,” Novack said in an interview with The Daily World.

Several commissioners said last week that the spring bear hunt is an important tradition for Washington hunters.

Commissioner Don McIsaac cautioned against using Ragen’s logic, saying his rationale could jeopardize other hunts as well, such as fall bear, cougar and black-tailed deer.

“That really elevated scientific standard of proof, to have a very high level of certainty before making decisions, would result, if it were applied to other species, in a lot of different closures,” McIsaac said.

McIaac voted to keep the spring bear hunt, citing an ongoing tradition that’s been alive “since statehood.” He and Commissioner Molly Linville, who also voted to keep the hunt, said many people in her area still support the spring bear hunt, and that the public response the commission received regarding the hunt was probably one-sided. Linville is from Douglas County in Eastern Washington.

“There’s another part of the public that is trusting this agency to manage traditional hunting seasons for traditional reasons, so a culture that has been a strong contributor to conservation over the years isn’t insulted by having the rug pulled out underneath of them for some reason you can’t even identify, because there’s no policy,” McIsaac said.

The state’s recreational spring black bear hunt was established in 1973 as a means to control bears where they damaged potential timber harvests. Since then, the spring hunt, while labeled “recreational,” has been tied to management objectives.

Bears use their claws to strip bark from trees and feed on the newly-formed outer layer of wood, which can damage trees, according to the Forest Service.

Commissioner Kim Thorburn, who last week voted against ending the hunt, said she didn’t agree with the notion that recreational hunts should be separated from management objectives.

“I think that hunting does provide management in terms of how it impacts behavior of wildlife, and in that sense can accomplish some of the management needs that we have, particularly bear and human conflict,” Thorburn said, adding that the spring bear hunt was about “respecting diverse values around wildlife.”

The commission will remain open to suggestions from wildlife staff about needs for hunting to fulfill management objectives.

“If the department believes there is a good reason to deploy hunters to solve a management objective, then let us know,” Baker said.