Much to the dismay of hunters and conservationists across the country, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Commission has voted once again to cancel the state’s lengthy spring bear season.
The 5-4 decision, which came during a meeting of the WDFW Commission on Saturday, March 19, reaffirms a similar vote in November 2021. The November vote unexpectedly canceled the season on the grounds that the country’s own population data the WDFW were also inadequate. as an unsubstantiated claim by certain commissioners that bears are lethargic and vulnerable in the spring. That decision was met with a resounding reaction from the hunting community.
In February, the commission acknowledged a petition that postponed the November decision and finally began Saturday’s vote. While hunting advocates had hoped another vote might restore Washington’s spring black bear season, few were surprised when the result turned out unfavorably.
MeatEater crew member and Washington resident Jason Phelps said the vote was both anticipated and disappointing.
“The commission’s decision to end bear hunting in the spring is evidence that we are living on a slippery slope,” Phelps said. “When politics and emotion replace science and biology in the decision-making process, this is the kind of results we will get.”
In the months between the November vote that canceled Spring Bear and the March 19 vote that upheld that cancellation, the WDFW Commission has been plagued by internal conflict. Commissioners Lorna Smith and Barbara Baker have been steadfast in their opposition to the hunt, while other commissioners, Molly Linville, Kim Thorburn, Don McIsaac and Jim Anderson, have never wavered in their support of the spring bear hunt.
This latest group sided with WDFW staff, who have used their own data to advocate for the hunt since it was initially called into question by a failed lawsuit in December 2020. But Smith and Baker continue to question the validity of the methods used. by WDFW staff biologists to gather up-to-date information on the state’s thriving bear population. Smith has gone so far as to call the agency’s methodology “old-fashioned.”
When Fred Koontz, another commissioner who opposed the hunt, abruptly resigned amid controversy and infighting, Washington Governor Jay Inslee quickly filled a slew of commission appointments, two of which he had neglected. for more than a year.
Proponents of the hunt speculate that Governor Inslee’s sudden interest in vacant commission seats, and his appointment of new commissioners who quickly moved to vote against the spring bear season, were part of a larger political strategy. broad to reduce hunting rights in Washington state. .
“Animal rights groups know they have an ally in Governor Inslee,” said Brian Lynn, a spokesman for the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Their most recent appointments to the commission show that they are happy to continue pushing an ideological agenda over accepted science. This board is so out of touch with the legitimate management of the hunt that the spring bear season will be the least of the hunters’ problems: more attacks on predator management to come, changes to the commission’s mandate, and of course , impacts on herds of ungulates. and the loss of hunting opportunities for them.”
During the meeting leading up to the decision, the commissioners heard from Dr. Stephanie Simek, the manager of WDFW’s carnivores, furriers and small game section. In a brief presentation, she again defended her agency’s methodology for monitoring black bear populations, saying the department sets hunting seasons based on the solid data she collects.
“We use harvest data as a main component of our management,” Simek told the commission. “But I want to remind people that we look at the percentage of females at harvest, we look at the age structure, we look at the trends of that data, and we also look at recent density estimates that we’ve been doing, other sources of mortality that we’ve noted or registered, and we use this whole system as our guide to establish seasons and determine whether or not we need to liberalize or restrict those seasons.”
Simek went on to recommend that commissioners adopt rule changes that would have reinstated the 2022 spring bear season.
Spokane Commissioner Kim Thorburn seconded the motion along with Molly Linville, Jim Anderson and Don McIsaac.
“I think the staff has given us good information as to why this hunt should be kept up,” Thorburn said during the meeting. “We have heard from hunters that it is a very popular hunt, something they enjoy and look forward to. We have a healthy population of black bears. For me, the question that we should ask ourselves if we are going to close a season is: Is the population decreasing? There is no evidence that the population is in decline. In fact, those measurements that Dr. Simek presented, if they suggest anything, there is evidence that the population may be increasing.”
While Thorburn’s comments spoke volumes about the folly of ending a successful hunting season in the face of solid scientific data to back it up, they were not enough to sway any of Governor Inslee’s newly appointed commissioners. The three, John Lehmukl, Tim Ragan and Melanie Rowland, joined Barbara Baker and Lorna Smith in their vote to end spring bear hunting in Washington state, at least for now.
Shortly after the vote ended, the anti-hunting group Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) issued a jubilant press release, applauding the commissioners who voted to suspend the hunt.
“This vote is a huge victory for both science and black bears and will protect bear cubs from being orphaned by a reckless spring hunt,” said Sophia Ressler, CBD staff attorney. “The commission once again told state wildlife officials that they will not authorize a hunt without a proper analysis of the threats to Washington’s bears. We hope the wildlife agency really listens this time.”
There is little evidence to support CBD’s persistent claims that spring bear hunters in Washington consistently orphan cubs. In fact, the data shows that of the 45 sows culled during the 2020 spring harvest, only one was lactating.
While it’s possible that single lactating sow may have left pups behind, it’s equally reasonable to assume that her pups had already been killed by a mature boar. Infanticidal behavior is common in black bears, especially within dense populations such as those in the Evergreen State.
Still, the proposed rule changes that the commission struck down on Saturday would have included a provision prohibiting the “take of female black bears accompanied by cubs.” This provision honored a request made in the February petition that started Saturday’s vote.
Doug Boze is a Washington-based bear hunter and author of “The Ultimate Guide to Black Bear Hunting.” He has fervently tracked the challenges of his state’s spring bear hunting season, from start to finish.
According to Boze, the WDFW Commission will review its decision at a meeting in June, but he worries commissioners will use that review as an opportunity to ban spring bear hunting altogether.
“This is not just a pause in the hunt, but a means to an end,” Boze told MeatEater. “When those in charge completely ignore more than 60 years of historical data and dismiss the overwhelming supporting science provided by the department’s own expert biologists, I have to conclude that there is an agenda at play.”
He said anyone interested in voicing opposition to the commission’s latest decision should contact the board by email.
“As far as I know, this is a done deal,” Boze said. “For now, the most important thing is to stay on top of what’s happening in his state and make yourself heard in meetings and during public comment. Hopefully there’s more to come in terms of action.”