The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission tied on approving the 2022 spring black bear permit hunt, meaning it will not occur this coming season.
Chair Larry Carpenter cast the decisive no vote in the 4-4 decision this morning, framing it as a pause in the hunt.
“I just think we need to confirm the accuracy of our information and cover our bases in the assault on this hunt,” he said.
Also voting against it were Vice Chair Barbara Baker and Commissioners Fred Koontz and Lorna Smith.
Voting in favor were Commissioners Kim Thorburn, who had made the motion to approve the hunt as presented by WDFW staff and strongly supported by Director Kelly Susewind, as well as Molly Linville, who seconded the motion, Jim Anderson and Don McIsaac.
The meeting was carried by WDFW on Zoom and also available on TVW for a statewide and indeed national audience watching along.
“The membership of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council are very disappointed by the Commission’s recent decision,” said Marie Neumiller, the venerable Spokane-based organization’s director. “The commissioners who voted ‘no’ ignored the valuable science presented by WDFW biologists showing that we have an abundant population of bears. By not properly managing the predators in our state we are putting deer, elk, moose, and small game animals at risk. Elk in the Blue Mountains are suffering and could have benefited from reduced predator pressure in the spring when vulnerable calves are at the highest risk from bear predation.”
In play were 664 special permits to hunt bruins primarily in Washington’s northeast and southeast corners. A WDFW elk calf collaring study this year in the latter area found “alarming mortality rates” and tied some of that to black bear predation.
Rachel Voss said she was “disgusted by the outcome of the commission vote, which had NO basis in science or conservation.”
But the Central Washington hunter, representative for the hunting community and member of WDFW’s Game Management Advisory Council vowed the fight wasn’t over.
“We are not done here, we will continue to fight the good fight for a very much needed spring bear season in Washington state. Science will prevail in the end. Even a one-year hold on a spring bear season will be evident in the science. You will see it in both the fawn and calf mortality rates, clear up to bear and human conflict calls increasing,” Voss said.
The limited-entry hunt is set annually. It has roots all the way back to 1973. Essentially what WDFW staffers were asking the commission to do was change the enabling Washington Administrative Code language from 2021 to 2022, set permit numbers by unit, reduce them in the Long Beach Unit, and change check-in requirements.
WDFW staff maintained there are no conservation concerns about the black bear population and that the hunt provides a recreational hunting opportunity with secondary and tertiary benefits to reduce timber damage, elk calf and deer fawn loss and human-bear conflict.
January’s unsettling appointment of Koontz and Smith by Governor Inslee always meant 2022’s faced a narrower path to approval.
Koontz said that since the hunt began in 1973 there had been no assessments as to whether it mitigated timber damage – hungry bears chew on young conifers in spring to get at the sap layer – or human conflict issues, and he said there was no method to determine population trajectories in the face of 2019’s increased bag limit in Eastern Washington to two animals
He said there was a lot of public concern around the loss of sows and that impact on cubs and he cast doubt on the WDFW staff training that determined only one lactating female had been taken during the 2021 hunt, a recent requirement.
“There are no other mammal hunts in spring and I will vote no,” Koontz said.
Smith said bears in spring were an “easy target” and termed WDFW’s models, which plugs in age and sex data from harvested animals to adjust the hunt, “old fashioned.”
“I have big concerns about what we currently know about the population,” she said, and expressed fear that the combination of spring and fall hunts were “not sustainable.”
Baker, a “solid no” carrying over from her lone vote against the 2021 spring season, called it an “unusual hunt.”
“If applied to other species, we’d have a big buck contest in the spring,” Baker said.
It was a simply preposterous statement, but she also claimed that WDFW’s rationale for holding the spring hunt had shifted over time, from a management tool to a recreational opportunity.
Baker said that accurate bear counts were needed and that when the agency did, it would have enough information to hold the hunt again, “even an unpopular one.”
It’s unclear what more information WDFW will be able to gather in the near term outside of the 2022 fall black bear hunt statistics – hunter harvest, effort, days per kill. The agency is also using hair traps and capture-collar studies to develop bruin density estimates. Per carnivore managers, those range from 30 black bears per 100 square kilometers, or 38 square miles, in Northeast Washington to 7 in the state’s southwest corner.
Voting in favor of the hunt, Thorburn said it supported WDFW’s mandate to provide opportunity and that staff had made reasonable recommendations for the 2022 hunt, which she said was popular, limited and focused on a healthy population where hunters still only had a 20 percent chance of bagging an animal.
Thorburn also pointed out that cougars too are hunted in spring in some areas of the state.
Linville contrasted ongoing issues with coastal wild winter steelhead with black bears, saying that in the former case there was an imperiled population that she could see using conservative management with.
“It’s clear we’re not there with the bear population,” she said.
McIsaac had many questions that served to obscure how he might vote, but in the end he was a yes.
Commissioners also turned to the man they hired a couple summers ago for his thoughts.
Susewind, who is no stranger to hard decisions, said it was also not a complex one.
The director told them the spring bear hunt neither impeded or impacted the population and that it fell within WDFW’s opportunity mandate.
Susewind termed it a “different opportunity” but also “not a special one.”
“We have way more than two deer hunts. High Buck, early, late, draw … If each were taken out … we’d be looking at just a general season, and that takes tools away from our managers,” he said.
Voss, the hunter, had high praise for WDFW’s head honcho.
“We are very pleased that WDFW, specifically Director Susewind, stands strong and knows that a spring bear season is a very effective and important conservation management tool. So please don’t be mistaken, this was strictly the work of the commission.”
Indeed, it fell to the chair, Carpenter, to speak last before the vote. He said he had been on both sides of the issue over the past few months, a time period that has also taken a heavy emotional toll on the Mount Vernon man whose pro-fishing and -hunting chops cannot be debated.
Speaking to the fellowship of those of us who don’t blink an eye at waking up at 3 in the morning to head out in pursuit of ducks, bucks, kings and more, he called for a one-year pause in the spring black bear hunt.
“I want to know with real certainty where the population is,” Carpenter said. “I will oppose the motion.”
His reluctant hand raise put him in very uncomfortable company.
“This vote is a huge win for Washington’s black bears and all our wildlife and ecosystems,” Sophia Ressler of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity was quoted as saying by reporter Eli Francovich of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “Pausing this hunt to properly analyze the risks will allow for reasoned decision making, and I hope the commission listens to the majority of folks in the state who want these cruel spring hunts to finally come to an end.”
CBD, HSUS and other environmental groups had been calling on the governor to replace Carpenter and add a ninth commissioner to the citizen panel that sets WDFW policies ahead of this vote, but in the end, the even number of members served up the result they wanted.
That only two of the commissioners were from east of the mountains rubbed INWC’s Neumiller the wrong way.
“We are also disappointed by the Governor’s Office that has failed to fill the vacant Eastern Washington commission seat leaving the commission unbalanced,” she said. “For almost a year the commission has been operating outside of the guiding RCW (RCW 77.04.030) which states that the commission will be comprised of nine members with three from west of the Cascades, three from east of the Cascades, and three at large. Had the governor fulfilled his duty of appointing the appropriate number of commissioners, this tie vote would not have happened. Eastern Washington, which is feeling the greatest impact by a high predator population, is grossly underrepresented on the commission and is being harmed by the governor’s inaction.”
While some of the commissioners voting no took pains to say they support hunting, it had Neumiller rallying the troops.
“We urge hunters to get involved in the commission process by testifying and sharing written comments with the commission to prevent further erosion of our hunting rights,” she said. “The commission cannot represent our voice if we do not share it with them.”
Indeed, today’s action shows that water slowly brought to a boil scalds the hardest.