OLYMPIA, Wash — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 against establishing a controversial 2022 spring black bear special permit hunting season.
Groups, advocates and residents spoke out on both sides of Washington state’s controversial spring bear hunt, which was previously put on hold due to deadlock within the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Last year, when the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) proposed changes to the hunt, allowing 664 permits that the department estimated would result in fewer than 150 bears harvested.
The commission’s November vote on the changes ended in a 4-4 tie and effectively halted the 2022 spring hunt. The vote to allow the hunt to move forward failed againt at a meeting on Saturday with a decisive 5-4 split.
Eric Gardner, the director of the Wildlife Program at DFW, said that bear hunting in the state has likely been around since humans were in the region, adding that while there are conservationist benefits to the hunt, it is primarily a recreational opportunity.
“Fundamentally, we are offering or recommending this through what we have as a game management plan, which its basis is recreational hunting opportunity,” Gardner said. “And it states within that that the ancillary benefits would be to also address those other management concerns.”
Some of the “ancillary benefits” involve issues that bears can cause for humans and businesses, especially timber companies who are negatively impacted when bears damage trees while searching for food.
With the spring bear hunt hanging in the balance, advocates on both sides have spoken out, stating why the commission should stop the spring bear hunt and why it should move forward with it.
AGAINST THE HUNT
Dan Paul, the Washington state director for the Humane Society of the United States, is hoping the hunt is stopped, calling the spring bear hunt “particularly cruel and inhumane.”
“They've come out of their dens from long hibernation. They're groggy and weary and desperate for food. The mothers have been nursing and lactating. So, they're particularly drained from their fat reserves. So, the time when they're really trying to just recover and sustain themselves, to have hunters take them out this particular time, it's just particularly bad,” Paul explained.
Although Paul admitted there are some benefits to the hunt, he said that the main reason for the hunt is recreational, adding that there are special permits given to forest owners each year to conduct special hunts to protect their trees from timber damage.
FOR THE HUNT
Marie Neumiller, the executive director for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, spoke at the commission’s most recent meeting in support of allowing the hunt, saying, “The commission is guided by a mandate to protect and preserve and also promote recreational opportunities.”
Neumiller also pointed out that bears pose a risk to livestock, affecting the populations of other wildlife in the state if their population remains unchecked.
“Failing to properly manage predators creates a ripple effect that impacts all wildlife in our state and will cause you to be out of alignment with your mandate,” Neumiller said.
In a January blog post, Neumiller also attacked the idea that just because a small minority of Washingtonians hunt then the overwhelming majority of residents do not support hunting and would approve of canceling the bear hunt.
Neumiller said Hunters Heritage Council President Mark Pidgeon called the argument "secundum quid," which means it applies a rule of thumb or assumption as an absolute rule while ignoring any nuances or qualifications.
As for the deadlock within the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Gardner said that the concepts that seem to be most important revolve around the issue of the science that the DFW uses to track bear populations as well as the social component of hunting an animal.
“The challenges that that brings forward with a species that's on the landscape that, in some cases, may be accompanied by young of the year. So, there's some value issues there,” he said.
Gardner also said that the data the DFW gets from hunters tells them a lot about how healthy the population is.
"It may not tell us how many there are, but it can tell us a little bit about catch efforts, which maybe gives us an indicator of if the population is increasing or stable or decreasing," Gardner said. "Over time, those become very meaningful datasets."
Should the commission have voted to authorize the hunt, Gardner said the season would have begun on May 1 and lasted until June 15. The spring bear hunt typically starts mid-April.
The DFW would have moved through an expedited process to alert hunters to the opportunity and usually gets about 8,000 people interested in the hunt.
The DFW would then decide through a random lottery which 664 hunters get tags in order to go on the hunt.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Paul said it's not about "wins and losses."
“This is an ethics issue of our state. We know that there's a robust bear population, but we're not going to sit there and allow the bears to be sort of targeted this way in the spring,” Gardner said. “This is an issue that won't go away.”