Black bears were again the focus of discussion Friday at a special meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
About 200 people were hoping to say whether the commission should reinstate the state’s spring 2022 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 the future of the 2022 spring bear hunting season on March 18.
Most of the people who spoke at this meeting were in favor of reinstating black bear hunting. Many hunters have said that the spring hunt is an opportunity to teach their children the ethics of hunting.
“You teach your children to choose the right bear to take. You don’t shoot the cubs. You don’t shoot sows. It is not the goal. The point is to get meat and share it with your friends and family,” said Steve Snowden, a hunter who commented at the reunion.
Additionally, Brooklyn Hudson, who identified as a registered tribal member, said an abundance of bears in the spring meadows gives hunters more time to consider which bear to take.
“Personally, I have shot all my biggest and oldest bears in the spring. I never shot a sow or a cub in the spring because I had plenty of time to compare the bears to each other and move around for an ethical shot,” Hudson said.
Hudson said bears are a staple food and tribesmen use pelts as blankets.
However, conservationists said bear populations are growing slowly and therefore don’t need what they say are unfortunate attempts at human regulation.
“A spring hunt is especially egregious because inevitably cubs will be orphaned. No hunt should ever take place during an animal’s breeding season,” said Renee Seacor, carnivore conservation advocate for The Coyote Project.
Additionally, Seacor said, climate change will pose a great threat to Washington’s bears through wildfires and other habitat loss. The majority of Washington residents do not support spring bear hunts, she said.
Additionally, conservation groups have said the bears are just emerging from hibernation in the spring, making them easy targets.
However, bears aren’t as sluggish in early spring as people think, said Stephanie Simek, chief of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s carnivores, furbearers and small game section.
Bears start emerging from their dens in mid-March, with most bears emerging from their dens by the end of the month, she said.
“The bears come and go from their den throughout the denning season. They don’t just hunker down and stand there,” Simek said. “It’s not real hibernation.”
At a previous meeting, department officials said bears can damage wood when they emerge from their dens and eagerly search for any available food.
However, Commissioner Barbara Baker said these hunts are no longer just for timber damage control. Now they are also a recreational opportunity, she said.
“What I want to know is when did this hunt change from being an extraordinary damage hunt to being a recreational hunt?” said Baker.
This isn’t the first time black bears have sparked debate.
At least a dozen conservation groups asked for a breakif not the outright end, of the spring hunting season, which they say would give the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife more time to study what conservationists have called a hunting season cruel.
The commission effectively postponed Washington’s intervention Spring Bear Hunt 2022 after a 4-4 split vote last november. A majority of commissioners was needed to approve special permits for the hunting season to take place.
After the November vote, several hunter groups and individuals submitted petitions to reinstate the 2022 spring season.
In January, the committee voted 4-3 reconsider spring 2022 bear hunting licenses.
If the commission approves the permits, likely next week, the spring hunt will take place from May 7 to June 15, a delayed start of about two weeks, Simek said.
The proposed spring hunt would include 664 permits spread across game management units in northern Skagit, northeast Washington, the Olympic Peninsula and the Blue Mountains.
“The planned harvest level is sustainable. It’s usually less than 150 bears caught in the season,” Simek said. “We detected no indicators of overconsumption.”
The black bear population in Washington ranges from 25,000 to 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 hasn’t seen enough comprehensive data to believe the black bear population is sustainable at this time.
“When it comes to preserving this population, if we don’t get science-backed data, you will end up losing your chance to hunt and your children will too,” Ragen said.
However, ministry officials said harvest rates were sustainable. The data is drawn from more than 80 years of bear management in several states and millions of dollars in species management research, said Eric Gardner, deputy director of the department’s wildlife program.
“I think we’re following pretty solid science, and we know quite a bit about our bear populations and their sustainability,” Gardner said.
If the commission approves the spring hunt, several additional rule changes could occur.
First, the petition to restore the spring bear season also asked that the hunt be approved indefinitely unless the department wanted to change specific parts of the hunt such as the number of special permits allowed, hunting areas, or season dates.
After public comment, the ministry proposed adding a rule that would protect cubs and sows, Simek said. The rule would prohibit the killing of offspring under one year old or under 50 pounds and any female bear that accompanies a cub.
The 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 spring bear hunting, including Oregon and Idaho. Idaho also allows approved baits.
If the rule is approved, harvesting a black bear with a cub could result in a felony sentence, said Paul Golden, deputy chief of law enforcement for the department, which could mean a maximum sentence of 364 days in county jail and/or up to a $5,000 fine.
Additionally, the rule change would include a mandatory inspection when hunters kill a black bear. Hunters had to bring unfrozen skin with the head and proof of sex attached. Hunters should schedule the inspection within 72 hours of the bear being killed.
From the inspection, department personnel may collect bear teeth to determine the bear’s age and other biological samples, Simek said. This data also allows staff to determine if a female bear was nursing her cubs when she was harvested.
The department collected this data for a year. So far, inspections have not shown the black bear population has been harmed by hunting, Simek said.
However, 65% of hunters report their catch, Commissioner John Lehmkuhl said, and 25% of hunters have submitted a bear tooth for aging.
The department is trying to improve reporting rates, Simek said.
The decision to reopen the debate has angered conservation groups opposed to the hunts. The January vote took place on a Friday. The following Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee named three new commissioners who conservation groups said could have swayed the decision in a different direction.
At the January meeting, commissioner Kim Thorburn 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 spring 2022 bear hunt.
However, at the same meeting, Commission Chairman Larry Carpenter, whose term has now expired, said the vote should not take place so close to when the governor fills the empty seats on the committee.
“This vote and result is untimely,” said Carpenter, a longtime hunter.
At the January meeting, commissioners also voted unanimously for a full review of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s policy on spring bear hunts. Discussion on the review is expected to begin in June.
The commission will accept comments on a possible spring 2022 bear hunting season until 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
The commission said that people can post public comments online on a public engagement page, email comments to [email protected]or leave a voicemail at 855-925-2801 and enter project code 6453.