Some Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission members appear to want to move sooner than later on tweaking black bear as well as cougar hunting regulations, a proposition that caused a notable tensing at a meeting of the panel today and recalls their past spring bear season vetos, as well as drew clear caution flags from a WDFW deputy director.
Out of that last one, Chair Lorna Smith of Port Townsend indicated that she wanted to talk about seasons and bag limits for bruins and lions and Commissioner Melanie Rowland of Twisp said she was unwilling to wait for the results of WDFW deep dives on critter science and wanted to move forward.
True, those are just two members of a subcommittee of a nine-member board, but with Governor Jay Inslee having largely reformed the body from its traditional moorings via new appointments the past three years, it was the sort of talk that immediately raised alarms among my sources this morning and put them on the defensive.
Should this go further, hunters will want to hold the commission from changing carnivore regulations through any sort of season setting, as they sneakily did with spring bear, and demand that any proposed tweaks first be stated in clear language and then run through the official rule-making process known as a CR-102. That requires written descriptions of a proposed rule; what Washington Administrative Code it applies to; when, where and how public comments will be taken and the deadline to submit them; and whether small business and state environmental reviews are needed.
In other words, the proper way to make and set public policy.
Sportsmen will also have a chance to politely address and question the commission about its intentions – do not pick on individual members – during public comment tomorrow and Saturday mornings. Here is a link to where you can register to speak (deadline is 8 a.m. both days).
FOR WDFW’S PART, THE AGENCY IS RECOMMENDING keeping the rules for bears and cougars “as is” until that science, which in the case of bruins revolves around more fully estimating the state’s population via hair trap analysis, as well as commission policy decisions around predator management are completed so as “to sufficiently inform any change.”
But Smith – who in her former life advocated for coexistence with bears and other predators and a couple years ago made a motion to split fall bear season out of the three-year hunting package, presaging the spring battle later that year – brought Commissioner Woody Myers into the discussion, and the retired WDFW researcher and Spokane-area resident spoke to a bear study in Ontario, part of Canada’s vast boreal forest, and related to that said he had concerns around what age Washington sows first bred at, what harvest data was showing about ages, and how that affected the population structure.
“I’d like to see us, where we don’t have data go after it and do a better job of fine-tuning our management for these important species,” Myers said.
“And I guess I’m of a mind with Woody on that,” responded Smith, who pivoted to say, “If we have data that would be useful to inform us now, maybe we take some action on that while we’re still continuing to gather data.”
However, Commissioner Jim Anderson of Buckley expressed reticence about moving forward with so many questions, information and process issues around carnivores still to work through for the commission to make an informed decision.
“Just thinking that we need to either change the regulations or the rules or the take or the like does not set us up for success. It sets us up for more of an internal argument,” he said. “If we just plow ahead with feelings on this, then I don’t think that is going to serve us well,” Anderson said.
Smith didn’t like the suggestion that commissioners were plowing ahead with feelings, but she also felt the issue wasn’t going to be nailed down at the moment either.
AFTER A BIT MORE DISCUSSION, IT FELL to WDFW Deputy Director Amy Windrope to summarize how agency staff was likely to deal with assisting the commission on the task.
She delivered an observation and a warning.
“You know, I think what we’ve experienced just in the last few minutes of mentioning the words ‘bear’ and ‘cougar’ is a complete shift in the energy of this room to a lot of energy around bear and cougar. And I think that if the commission chooses to take up bear and cougar seasons between now and April, staff will not have the information that is desired,” Windrope stated.
April of every third year is typically when WDFW’s three-year hunting package has gone through public comment and staff presentations and then is ultimately approved by the commission. The last go-around was in spring 2021.
“We will be in the same position we were for the spring bear conversation, unable to answer the questions that commissioners rightfully have,” Windrope added. “[WDFW Wildlife Program Chief Scientist] Donny [Martorello] is starting a process. It is the start of a process. It will not be completed by the time you have to make the decision that’s in front of you.”
“If we go down that path, I think we’ve been there before. And I, as somebody who cares passionately about this commission, worry that it’s likely to tear us further apart than bring us together. So in my mind, I’m very worried about that path,” Windrope warned.
Smith disagreed that it was tearing the commission apart, terming the committee meeting “one of the best discussions we’ve had,” and acknowledged Anderson’s hesitance to move forward.
But in the next breath Smith said the question before members was when was there enough science to provide guidance on whether bear and cougar seasons were “right” and didn’t require tweaking, or if there was a “compelling reason to change them now.”
“What we’re hearing is the information is coming in. It sounds like we’re on the cusp of having that information. So you know, maybe the timing isn’t going to be quite right, but that’s what I’m hearing,” Smith said.
(Smith tends to hear what she wants to hear. At the full commission’s recent Seattle meeting on the draft Conservation Policy, she insisted she’d heard a majority of commenters in favor of the controversial document, but Vice Chair Molly Linville had brought the receipts, and they showed that actually 15 had testified against it and only 13 were for it.)
Rowland stated that she wanted to use a “precautionary principle” in the near term to manage bear and cougar hunting at some lowest-population number until more data came in.
“I don’t see any reason to not to make a decision when we have enough information to say, If we use the precautionary principle, can we have a baseline now based on what we know that is a precautionary number as we develop more definitive science?” she urged.
Eric Gardner, WDFW Wildlife Program director, said state biologists would be digging into Myers’ Ontario bear study and his questions and whether they warrant management tweaks.
But in the meanwhile, he said the agency has “a pretty solid framework for bear and cougar management, and we are operating within that.”
How long that frame holds may come down to whether a majority of the commission wants to act quickly and do season-setting around the two species or the more plodding rule-making route, and how much hunters rise up and say, not this time when it’s not biologically warranted.