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Washington commission to reconsider 2022 spring bear hunt

A controversial spring bear hunt in Washington may reopen.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will reconsider a controversial spring bear hunt that the commission had recently postponed.

In November, the commission did not update permits for a 2022 spring bear hunt after a 4-4 split decision. A majority of commissioners needed to authorize the 2022 special hunt permits, which meant the upcoming spring season would not happen.

Since the November vote, hunting groups petitioned the commission to open the 2022 spring bear hunt.

The commission is expected to reconsider the 2022 spring bear hunt at its March meetings.

At a special meeting Friday, Commissioner Don McIsaac said he believed the hunt could go on because black bears are imperiled not in Washington state.

“I note something like 48 consecutive years of a season without overharvesting,” McIsaac said.

State biologists have said the limited spring bear hunt protects against damage to timber and other property that are attractive to bears.

However, conservation groups raised concerns over the spring hunt. At least a dozen groups said the hunt kills groggy bears just as they’ve emerged from hibernation with cubs in tow.

At the November vote, four commissioners asked for more information about the hunts before issuing permits.

Commissioner Barbara Baker said suspending the hunt would allow biologists more time to study how the hunts affect Washington’s black bear population.

“Over a year ago, this commission promised to engage in a thoughtful and thorough evaluation of the entire issue of a spring bear hunt. That did not occur,” Baker said.

Moreover, Baker said, the commission shouldn’t go back on its earlier decision, especially after Fred Koontz resigned his position on the commission, less than a year into a six-year term.

Koontz, who opposed the spring bear hunts, submitted his resignation following heated criticism after the November vote, Baker said.

In addition, Commission Chair Larry Carpenter said, the commission decided to reconsider the 2022 spring bear season days or weeks before filling the vacant position.

“This vote and outcome is ill-timed,” said Carpenter, a life-long hunter. “I believe it will give the commission a significant image problem and a large black eye.”

However, other commissioners said the spring bear hunt debate could continue along with the 2022 season.

This decision wasn’t going back on a vote, said Commissioner Kim Thorburn, because the spring hunt pause happened essentially after a technicality – a split vote.

“From my perspective, this is an opportunity to correct a mistake,” Thorburn said.

Conservation groups called the petitions to reinstate the spring hunt undemocratic. The right to appeal decisions is important, said Sophia Ressler, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposed the spring bear hunt.

However, she said, hunting groups shouldn’t be able to change the commission’s vote because it didn’t go as hunting groups hoped.

“This feels to me like a child not getting the response they want from one parent, so they go to ask permission from the other one,” Ressler said during public comments at a Jan. 14 commission meeting.

However, Bryce Levin, a volunteer with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the commission found a roundabout way to stop the spring season.

“Did select commissioners see this as a way to eliminate the spring bear season in a coordinated effort with anti-hunting groups?” Levin said in public comments.

Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said he supported the spring bear season.

“I think we can support hunting. I think we can support the broader public. I’m not so naive as to think there won’t be conflict when those two overlap. But, a respectful dialogue around that conflict will benefit us all,” Susewind said.

Eight states allow for spring bear hunt, including Oregon and Idaho. Idaho also allows approved baiting.

If the commission approves a spring bear hunt, the season likely wouldn’t begin until early May, Susewind said, instead of on April 15 as initially proposed.

“I think that provides a meaningful season,” Susewind said.

Later in the year, the commission plans to discuss the future of a spring bear hunt beyond this year.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated black bear status in Washington and misspelled Don McIsaac's last name.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.