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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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Washington controversial spring black bear hunt could be revived. Here’s how


SEATTLE — Spring black bear hunting is back for a revote next week before the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, which deadlocked last year on whether to allow a hunt this spring.

Advocates for the hunt successfully petitioned the commission to take up the matter again. A public hearing is scheduled for Friday.

The issue is controversial. Animal rights activists and other critics argue the hunt cruelly targets hungry bears recently out of hibernation and can inadvertently kill mother bears with cubs — a certain death sentence for the nursing young. Hunters in favor of the bear hunt say they are defending a cherished recreational opportunity as well as a valued food source.

The black bear population is regarded as healthy statewide, though the robustness of all local populations is unknown. In 2020, the department estimated there were 25,000 to 30,000 black bears in the state.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife proposes the commission approve a rule providing 664 spring bear permits in 2022, and estimates that hunters would kill approximately 145 black bears in the hunt.

Hunters also kill bears in a fall hunt. In 2020, the spring hunt accounted for 145 of 2,092 bears killed, according to the department.

Last year, 8,830 people applied for spring bear permits. Killed that spring were 79 males and 45 females, including one lactating female, based on preliminary data, according to the department.

The rule governing a hunt this year would make it illegal to kill female bears with cubs. Hunters would also have to report any bear killed to the department, then present the pelt and head within five days to determine if the bear was lactating.

The rule also would no longer be year-specific, ending the necessity of consideration by the commission to annually reauthorize the hunts.

Black bears have been classified as a game animal in Washington since 1969. A special spring bear season was established in 1973 in areas deemed “bear timber damaged areas,” with the season running from April to June.

The idea was to “apply pressure” where bears were damaging timber to get at the sugary inner bark, according to a staff presentation to the commission last year by Stephanie Simek, the carnivore, furbearer and game bird section manager for the wildlife program at the department.

However, the WDFW does not have a formal effectiveness monitoring program to assess the impact of bear hunting on tree damage, or on reducing human-bear conflicts, another purported benefit of the spring hunt, according to a November 2021 memo to the governor’s office by Eric Gardner, wildlife program director for the WDFW.

The issue polarized the commission. Fred Koontz of Duvall, former conservation director for the Woodland Park Zoo, said the commission had become a “political quagmire” in which he could not work productively. He resigned from his six-year term after less than a year on the citizen panel that sets policy for WDFW — after voting no on the hunt.

Koontz said in an interview this week the spring bear issue was one of many that show the commissioners and the department are not thinking broadly enough about their mission.

Evaluating a hunting or fishing season isn’t only about the numbers of animals that can be killed without hurting a population, Koontz said. Wildlife policy makers should also be guided by social considerations, he said.

“It is my opinion that the public at large is not in favor of hunting bears for recreation in the spring,” Koontz said. “There is an opportunity to hunt bears in the fall, and there are no other clear, nonrecreational benefits.”

There is significant public concern about mother bears being inadvertently killed in the hunt, Koontz said.

“We don’t hunt any other mammals in the spring, the time of life renewal.”

To avid spring bear hunters, though, the spring season is the whole point, said Pete Butler, president of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, a nonprofit outdoor education and recreation organization.

Getting out in that first hunt in the spring, “you shake that winter dust off. You stretch your legs,” Butler said. Bear pepperoni sticks, bear jerky, bear roasts, bear steaks on the grill are good eating, and time with family and new hunters in the woods is cherished, Butler said.

Marie Neumiller, executive director for the council, said the organization petitioned for the rehearing because the way the previous meeting was announced by WDFW, it appeared the meeting was just about technicalities — not whether the hunt should happen at all.

“The feedback we got was people didn’t participate in those sessions because they didn’t think the validity or ethics of the hunt was up for review,” Neumiller said.

People are invited to participate or submit comments before the commission takes a vote during its regularly scheduled meeting March 17-19. To view and submit comments on the proposal, visit the rule making public engagement page.

Leave comments by sending an email, either with or without an attachment, to SpringBearPetition102@PublicInput.com or by leaving a voicemail at 855-925-2801 and entering project code 6453.

Public comments will be accepted until the close of the comment period on Saturday, March 12, at 11:59 p.m.

Friday’s public hearing will be held at 8 a.m. via webinar. Registration is required to testify. Registration deadlines and registration forms are available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/about/commission/meetings or by contacting the commission office at 360-902-2267.