The remarks of one of the newest Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioners are being parsed for where the nine members will likely land on the state’s 2022 limited-entry spring black bear permit hunt when they vote on the proposal this Saturday.
John Lehmkuhl has been seen as pivotal since he was named to the citizen panel in late January by Governor Jay Inslee.
That’s because four commissioners have twice voted essentially in favor of the bruin season – once in November when a tie paused the hunt and then again two months ago when they accepted a citizen petition to reinitiate rulemaking on it.
And between two other commissioners’ no’s during the same votes and the statements of a pair of new members last Friday, there appears to be a group of four opposed to a 46-day hunt this May 1-June 15.
“I think the seriousness of the situation is more grave than you might believe,” said Tim Ragen of Anacortes, an oceanographer, biologist and former director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission in calling for more data on bear numbers including all mortality sources, and research. “I don’t see a basis for allowing ourselves the luxury of going forward with these hunts when we don’t understand this population.”
His remarks may have been made in the vein of a skeptical scientist challenging findings for the advancement of knowledge, but Melanie Rowland of Twisp agreed with him.
Rowland spoke to her work with the National Marine Fisheries Service on Endangered Species Act-listed populations, where she learned to use the “precautionary principle” in the same way as someone buys home insurance against a fire.
Black bears, of course, are considered a “species of least concern” by the International Union of Concerned Scientists. There are an estimated 20,000 roaming around the state’s woods and mountains; harvest (fall and spring) rose from an average of 1,481 from 1996 through 2010 to an average of 1,771 (fall, spring and timber removals) from 2011 through 2020. To some it would actually suggest a rising population, though WDFW would describe it as stable.
But others are trying to paint a picture that Washington’s collective black bear sleuth is somehow all but needing federal protections if the proposed 664 special permits are granted for an abbreviated 2022 spring season that is expected to harvest, tops, 145 bruins; that WDFW’s population estimates, science and management are outdated; that the agency has an agenda and isn’t sharing all information with commissioners; that bear density measurements need to be fully completed statewide first; that harvest increases seen in the fall season in recent years are problematic.
It all exasperates Brian Lynn, a Spokane-area hunter who is a spokesman for the national Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“It’s exactly the same ploy that we’re seeing in California, Arizona and Colorado,” he said. “The science isn’t ‘good enough’ – a never-ending goal-post movement that will take years to accomplish, and then they’ll find new issues to further kick the can down the road.”
“But the other side of the coin is that no science exists or has been presented that proves black bears in Washington have been or are under any threat of overharvest,” Lynn added.
Along with Acting Chair Molly Linville of Douglas County and Commissioners Kim Thorburn of Spokane and Don McIsaac or Clark County, Jim Anderson was twice one of the four yeses and appears to still be leaning that way.
“I think the issue to me in some ways boils down to whether or not we have adequate data, and I believe we do,” said the Buckley resident and retired longtime executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We always operate in the situation of perhaps wanting to having more and more data, when the data that we have is adequate for the purposes at hand.”
For their part, WDFW managers continue to defend the hunt and their management.
“From the department’s perspective I heard some statements about the harvest rate not being sustainable and I just want to set clearly on the record that we do not believe that is the case with our management of black bears,” said Eric Gardner, who heads up the Game Division, last Friday after public comment and during commissioner discussion. “There’s over 80 years of black bear management history in multiple states, millions of dollars, likely, in research and management that has been put behind the model for management, including bear management, and I think we’re following some pretty sound science.”
Managers use the percent of females in the overall harvest and the median ages of sows and boars to restrict, hold steady or liberalize future seasons, an accepted metric, even as new models are developed.
“And we know quite a bit about our bear populations and their sustainability and I felt like I wanted to get that on the record because we heard some definitive statements that we simply don’t have the science or that information wasn’t there,” Gardner added.
Agency bear manager Dr. Stephanie Simek reminded the citizen panel after public comment last week that the conservation concept is a baked-in part of sportsmen’s mindset.
“As you heard from many of the hunters, they take the time, they glass, they’re not looking to necessarily take small young bears, they’re not looking to harvest females. I mean, the idea here is maintaining a sustainable harvest and a sustainable recreational opportunity,” she said.
Reinforcing that further, the spring proposal up for a vote later this week also includes a new ban on shooting sows with cubs, and cubs, punishable as a gross misdemeanor. Under current state rules hunters are asked not to shoot sows – last year only one lactating female was known by WDFW to have been harvested – but the regulation would align with strong public sentiment and existing rules in Oregon and Idaho.
Simek also pushed back on arguments that spring bears are “lethargic” during the spring hunting period, pointing out that boars emerge from dens two weeks to a month before Washington’s season has begun in past years – and most bears by the end of March.
“Bears enter and exit dens more frequently than people realize. They come and go in and out of their den throughout the denning season. They don’t just hunker down and stay there,” she added. “Even females with cubs.”
Indeed, if evolution has any say in the matter, lethargic animals don’t last long in the wild.
“Shoot, even when I was doing den work and we were radio-collaring animals, we’ve had bears literally bolt out of dens,” Simek said.
But back to John Lehmkuhl, who I believe will cast at least one if not two decisive votes this Saturday morning.
It was just after the four-hour mark of last Friday’s meeting that the lower Wenatchee Valley man and retired Forest Service research biologist provided substantive thoughts on spring bear hunting.
You can watch them here starting at the 4:06:42 mark, and they are transcribed in full below:
“Yeah, I just had a few brief comments. There are so many things to talk about that were brought up here. We don’t have the time to do it.”
“Mainly I want to say, I appreciate the passion everybody brings to the topic and I hope we can all recognize that we all have a shared passion in wildlife. It’s not just the hunters, it’s not just the conservationists; we all are here because we’re interested in wildlife. And I hope everybody recognizes that and respects everybody else in the conversation.
“I’m a lifelong hunter and an angler, and I’ve had a career my whole adult life in wildlife science and management. One of the issues a lot of hunters brought up is they feel this is just a slippery slope, that now it’s spring bear hunting and then it’s going to be fall bear hunting and then it’s going to be deer and elk hunting and et cetera.
“And I really don’t think that’s the case. We’re just talking about spring bear hunting here; we’re not talking about banning all bear hunting. There’s three and a half months of bear hunting left and a bag limit of two starting in August. I think there’s plenty of bear hunting opportunity. The question is just about spring bear hunting.
“And finally just a comment on, we often hear the issue about trying to maximize recreational hunting, and I think the department does a very good job of trying to maximize recreational hunting. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for bear hunting – all kinds of hunting.
“With regard to spring bear hunting, the thing that occurs to me is, why just are we hunting bears in the spring? And why aren’t we – if we’re going to maximize bear hunting, OK, let’s hunt bears in the spring. If we’re trying to maximize hunting in general, then why aren’t we hunting other animals in the springtime? Why do we have a double standard for bears?
“I’m not expecting people to give me an answer to that right now, but that’s just something to think about. And that’s not saying we should or shouldn’t be hunting bears in spring, but just think about that. Why bears and why nothing else if we’re maximizing hunting? That’s all I have to say.”
Afterwards, Lehmkuhl’s remarks left zero doubt for some that he would be a no, and thus the 2022 season would go down in flames, though others were somewhat more optimistic, crossing their fingers that another fellow hunter wouldn’t let them down.
While one wondered to me if Lehmkuhl’s reasoning was actually suggestive of potential room in his mind for expanding other seasons – “If we’re trying to maximize hunting in general, then why aren’t we hunting other animals in the springtime?” – I’m not so sure about that.
To me, the soliloquy seems to signal he can see forgoing the controlled spring bear hunt in limited game units because of the long general August-November 15 statewide fall season, which he terms “plenty of bear hunting opportunity.”
I think Lehmkuhl’s questioning of a “double standard” of bears being hunted spring and fall is meant to be a reminder to hunters as well as rhetorical to a degree, to suggest that WDFW has gone beyond maximizing hunting opportunities by holding two seasons for bears and “nothing else.”
(As has been pointed out before, in fact other Washington game species host multiple seasons – for deer, early bow, High Buck, early muzzleloader, general rifle, late bow, late rifle, late muzzy, and special permit hunts throughout; for cougar, general and winter/spring; for turkey, spring and fall; for geese, September Canadas, a youth day, general season, brant, late Canadas, late-late snow/white geese.)
And I’m definitely not sold that we aren’t in fact on a very slippery slope. HavingreportedonthespringbearissuesinceDecember2020, I don’t believe this much energy has been marshalled and harnessed against it just to focus on eliminating a season with 664 tags and harvests of 124 bears last year, 145 in 2020, 114 in 2019, 97 in 2018, 139 in 2017, 124 in 2016, 94 in 2015, 85 in 2014 – it goes on, but at most seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s estimated bear population.
The failed lawsuit against 2021’s hunt, the push to name more commissioners like Lorna Smith and the resigned Fred Koontz, the draft conservation policy, the massed comments, last November’s tie, the efforts to “reform” WDFW and tar a regional director’s name (and the agency by extension) all have me mulling the words last November of a well-informed and -placed source who said that animal rights groups view the state as something of an easy mark and testing grounds for wider campaigns, and that if they can win in Washington, it helps them advance their causes elsewhere.
And let’s note forget that last April, as the commission set three-year hunting packages, Smith tried to make fall bear subject instead to year-to-year approval by changing its guiding WAC, a move that failed but is still emblematic of, indeed, the slippery slope we are on.
True, some commissioners who’ve been a no on a 2022 season have qualified it as a pause to gather the data to put spring bear on an even stronger footing in 2023 and beyond – as Ragen stated last week, “When it comes to preserving this population, if we don’t get it on a scientific basis, you will eventually lose your opportunity and hunt and so will your children” – and I’ll tip my hat to them if they can accomplish that.
Yet to me spring bear feels more like a beachhead that will be expanded, with the “precautionary principle” used as a cudgel on all manner of seasons. Don’t get me wrong, as a sportsman, I am completely and totally supportive of scientific management and research, and conservation of our species to ensure that they’re available for harvest and just to be in perpetuity.
But all together it makes Saturday morning’s vote pretty consequential. One of two that day, as the commission will also elect a new chair. Immediately before the bear decision