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Court rules Washington state exceeded authority with controversial bear hunting program

A new ruling from the state court of appeals found the state exceeded its authority in the way it allowed bear hunts to happen.

A new ruling from the state court of appeals found the state exceeded its authority in the way it allowed bear hunts using bait and hounds.

The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, following a 2017 KING 5 investigation into the Bear Depredation Management Program, in which reporter Alison Morrow found Washington Fish and Wildlife was allowing the voter-outlawed practices to continue, using a loophole in the governing initiatives.

In spring, bears wake up hungry from hibernating through the winter and the sap in trees presents an easy food source. But bears peeling away bark to get to the sugary substance damages and scars the trees, and impacts their value to timber companies.

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Washington voters outlawed hunting bears with hounds and bait in 1996 with I-655, and in 2000, limited traps with I-713. But a loophole allowed the practices in some situations to address bears damaging private property.

“But they were to be very specific, and for specific animals,” said Lisa Wathne, who championed I-655, back in 2017. “Not for wholesale thinning of the population by any means.”

There were also allegations the program was being abused, and that permits issued to private hunters had evolved into an elite hunting club taking non-offending bears. Hunts were allowed every spring on timber farms.

The Washington Forest Protection Association blames bears for millions of dollars in damage a year, and owners argued a need to protect the trees from bears.

Following the story, the Center for Biological Diversity sued WDFW in 2018, demanding a stop to the annual bear hunts on commercial land.

Tuesday, the state court of appeals ruled “the timber hunt rule exceeded the Department’s statutory authority because it exceeds the exception set out in the controlling statute for the use of bait and hounds.”

However, the court found the special trapping rule was within the department’s authority.

The appeals court also wrote the program must be limited to "agents of the county, state or federal agencies while acting in their official capacity," which looks to be a new limit on the use of private hunters.

Claims from the center over “arbitrary and capricious and unlawful rulemaking” were sent back to the trial court for consideration.

“This is a big win, and we’re really excited about it,” said Collette Adkins, with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It reflects years of work and advocacy by KING 5, and our team of lawyers and advocates.”

She said they expect the fight to continue.

“This ruling is a big win for Washington’s bears,” Adkins said. “The state had gone against the will of the Washington voters and allowed these cruel and ineffective methods like chasing bears with hounds and baiting them with sugary snacks. It allowed these methods to be used, even though the voters didn’t want it. Luckily, the court has stopped that cruelty for now, and we’re really thrilled.”

WDFW noted in a statement that it maintains its authority on trapping under some circumstances.

"We know that this is a controversial issue and that people feel passionately on both sides,” said WDFW Wildlife Program director Eric Gardner. “We remain committed to working with a diversity of Washington citizens on ways to address bear timber damage and conflict and ultimately maintain sustainable black bear populations for future Washington generations.”

The agency said it is considering how the ruling will impact management going forward.

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