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Black bears are the target of debate in Washington, again

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The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission may reopen the state’s 2022 spring black bear hunt.

Black bears were again the target of discussion Friday during a special Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting.

Approximately 200 people hoped to comment on whether the commission should reinstate the state’s 2022 spring black bear hunt. During the meeting, which lasted more than four hours, 55 people shared their opinions on the hunt. The commission is expected to decide on the future of the 2022 spring bear hunting season March 18.

Most of the people who spoke at this meeting supported reinstating the black bear hunts. Many hunters said the spring hunt provided an opportunity to teach their children about ethical hunting.

“You get to teach your children about the right bear to take. You don’t shoot cubs. You don’t shoot sows. That’s not the goal. The goal is to get meat and share that with your friends and family,” said Steve Snowden, a hunter who commented at the meeting.

Moreover, Brooklyn Hudson, who identified as an enrolled tribal member, said an abundance of bears in the spring meadows allows hunters extra time to think about which bear to take.

“Personally, I’ve shot all my largest and oldest bears in the spring. I’ve never shot a sow or a cub during the spring season because I’ve had lots of time to compare bears to each other and move in for an ethical shot,” Hudson said.

Hudson said bears are a staple food, and tribal members use hides as blankets.

However, conservationists said bear populations grow slowly, and therefore don’t need what they said are hapless attempts at human regulation.

“A spring hunt is especially egregious because inevitably cubs will be orphaned. No hunt should ever occur during an animal’s breeding season,” said Renee Seacor, carnivore conservation advocate for Project Coyote.

In addition, Seacor said, climate change will greatly threaten Washington’s bears because of wildfires and other habitat loss. A majority of people in Washington don’t support spring bear hunts, she said.

Moreover, conservation groups said bears are just coming out of hibernation in the springtime, making them easy targets.

However, bears aren’t as sluggish in the early spring as people think, said Stephanie Simek, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s carnivore, furbearer and small game section manager.

Bears begin emerging from their dens in mid-March, with most bears out of their dens by the end of the month, she said.

“Bears come and go from their den throughout the denning season. They don’t just hunker down and stay there,” Simek said. “It’s not true hibernation.”

At an earlier meeting, department officials said bears can damage timber as they emerge from their dens and hungrily search for any available food.

However, Commissioner Barbara Baker said these hunts are no longer solely to control timber damage. Now, they also make up a recreational opportunity, she said.

“What I want to know is when this hunt changed from an extraordinary damage hunt to a recreational hunt?” Baker said.

This is not the first time black bears have caused a debate.

At least a dozen conservation groups called for a pause, if not outright end, to the spring hunting season, which they said would give the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife more time to study what the conservationists called a cruel hunting season.

The commission effectively postponed Washington’s 2022 spring bear hunt after a 4-4 split vote this past November. A majority of commissioners needed to approve the special permits for the hunting season to happen.

After the November vote, several hunting groups and individuals submitted petitions to reinstate the 2022 spring season.

In January, the commission voted 4-3 to reconsider the 2022 spring bear hunting permits.

If the commission approves the permits, likely next week, the spring hunt would take place May 7–June 15, a delayed start of around two weeks, Simek said.

The proposed spring hunt would include 664 permits spread out over game management units in North Skagit, Northeast Washington, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Blue Mountains.

“The anticipated level of harvest is sustainable. It’s typically less than 150 bears taken during the season,” Simek said. “We have not detected any indicators of over harvest.”

The black bear population in Washington ranges from 25,000–30,000 bears, Simek said. The range is due to different methods of estimating populations, she said. The range is not a significant difference, Simek said.

However, Commissioner Tim Ragen said he hadn’t seen enough complete data to believe the black bear population is sustainable at this time.

“When it comes to preserving this population, if we don’t get data on a scientific basis, you will eventually lose your opportunity to hunt and so will your children,” Ragen said.

However, department officials said harvest rates were sustainable. Data are driven from more than 80 years of bear management from multiple states and millions of dollars in species management research, said Eric Gardner, assistant director of the department’s Wildlife Program.

“I think that we’re following some pretty sound science, and we know quite a bit about our bear populations and sustainability,” Gardner said.

If the commission approves the spring hunt, several additional rule changes could happen.

First, the petition to reinstate the spring bear season also requested the hunt be approved indefinitely, unless the department wanted to change specific parts of the hunt such as the number of special permits allowed, hunt areas, or season dates.

After public input, the department proposed adding a rule that would protect cubs and sows, Simek said. The rule would prohibit killing offspring that are less than 1 year old or less than 50 pounds and any female bear that accompanies a cub.

This rule would align Washington’s spring bear hunts with other Western states and Canadian provinces that also have similar hunts, Simek said.

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

If the rule is approved, harvesting a black bear with a cub could result in a gross misdemeanor penalty, said Paul Golden, department enforcement deputy chief, which could mean a maximum penalty of up to 364 days in county jail and/or up to a $5,000 fine.

In addition, the rule change would include a mandatory inspection when hunters kill a black bear. Hunters would have to bring an unfrozen pelt with the head and evidence of sex attached. Hunters would have to schedule the inspection within 72 hours of killing the bear.

From the inspection, department staff can collect bear teeth for determining the bear’s age and other biological samples, Simek said. This data also allow the staff to determine if a female bear was nursing her cubs when she was harvested.

The department has collected that data for a year. So far, the inspections haven’t shown the black bear population has been harmed by hunting, Simek said.

However, 65% of hunters are reporting their kills, said Commissioner John Lehmkuhl, and 25% of hunters submitted a bear tooth for aging.

The department is attempting to improve reporting rates, Simek said.

The decision to reopen the debate angered conservation groups opposed to the hunts. The January vote took place on a Friday. The following Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appointed three new commission members who, conservation groups said, could have swayed the decision in a different direction.

At the January meeting, Commissioner Kim Thorborn said the commissioners only delayed the season because of a technicality – the split vote in November.

“From my perspective, this is an opportunity to correct a mistake,” Thorburn said of the decision to reconsider the 2022 spring bear hunt.

However, at the same meeting, Commission Chair Larry Carpenter, whose term has now ended, said the vote shouldn’t happen so close to when the governor would fill the commission’s empty seats.

“This vote and outcome is ill-timed,” said Carpenter, a life-long hunter.

At the January meeting, commissioners also unanimously voted for a full review of the Fish and Wildlife Department’s policy on spring bear hunts. Discussion about the review is expected to begin in June.

The commission will accept comments on a potential 2022 spring bear hunting season through 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

The commission said people can post public comments online at a public engagement page, or send emailed comments to SpringBearPetition102@PublicInput.com, or leave a voicemail at 855-925-2801, and enter project code 6453.