WA Spring Bear Hunt 2023, Blues Lion Tag Increase On Shaky Ground

The future of Washington’s limited-entry spring 2023 black bear hunt is looking on the bleak side.

It always was with the current Fish and Wildlife Commission, but an article in today’s Lewiston Tribune states next year’s season “may be axed” at the governor-appointed panel’s mid-July meeting before members even have a chance to take up WDFW staffers’ proposals this fall.


At this month’s meeting, the commission, which sets WDFW policy, is expected to “review their approach for evaluating spring bear hunting and may revise direction that was previously provided to the Department in January,” according to an eyebrow-raising press release from the agency earlier today.

While the word “may” keeps things open-ended, to be far more blunt, things appear more ended than open at this point.

The January reference is about a deep dive the commission unanimously agreed to perform before making a decision this October about next spring’s bruin season and permit levels, which have always been fewer than 1,000 across the state.

Now that all could be swept off the table by a simple procedural vote two Fridays from now.

“Commissioners will decide July 15 if they will hold off on considering permit levels for the 2023 spring black bear season, or any year, until they rewrite the state‚Äôs policy on the controversial hunt. Such efforts usually take many months if not longer. If passed, the amendment is likely to preclude any consideration of a limited bear hunt next spring, unless the commission acts with abnormal speed to revise its current spring black bear policy,” explains Eric Barker at the Tribune.

With how tired some commissioners claim to be of the issue, don’t expect much haste.

A source indicates it’s a “certainty” 2023’s hunt will not occur.

This year’s spring bear season was off and on again before finally being axed in March on a 5-4 vote powered by Governor Inslee’s recent appointments.

Barker’s article also casts doubt on WDFW’s cougar tag increase proposal in the Blue Mountains, meant to reduce big cat predation on the local elk herd, which after an assessment was designated as “at risk” because it is far below objective and recently at a 30-year low, and documented calf recruitment rates are well below levels needed to rebuild itself.

“I don’t see a problem with what’s happening with the elk there for now,” stated Commissioner Melanie Rowland last Saturday, essentially an echo of former Commissioner Fred Koontz and current Commissioner Lorna Smith at a December meeting, who didn’t consider it a crisis. “Again, the fact one year, yes, cougars prey on elk calves. They’d be pretty stupid if they didn’t and, frankly, I don’t think cougars are that stupid. So that’s a fact, but is it a problem? I don’t see the problem.”

Just nine of 125 calves radio-collared in spring 2021 are known to have survived to March of this year, with 77 mortalities caused by predators, and 55 of those by cougars. Calf recruitment rates in the 20-30:100 cow range are needed just to hold the population steady, but last winter’s aerial survey found 17:100, the lowest mark since 2000.

“I can’t see killing more cougars so we can kill more elk,” said Rowland, who referenced ecosystem carrying capacity, environmental factors and climate change.

As he did the day before with wolf management, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind stepped in with a strident rebuttal in support of his managers.

“Some clarification. I have never heard staff say we want to kill more cougars so we can kill more elk. What I heard Anis [Aoude, Game Division manager] say is that the elk population is at a low, perhaps an all-time low, and the current level of calf mortality, it cannot sustain itself where it’s at. That to me is a problem, to have an all-time low, or near-all-time low population that can’t replace itself.”

Hunters would be able to bag two cougars a year in the Blues but the overall limit of 18 to 22 big cats would stay the same. The figures represent 12 to 16 percent of the population.

This year WDFW is repeating 2021’s elk study, but with fewer elk calves because not enough were available in one unit.

Black bears also killed some of the Blue Mountains’ young wapiti in last year’s collar study, and there would have been 139 tags in the range this spring except for the commission’s vote.

Instead, we’ll apparently let cougars and bears and wolves feast, like we did with the caribou herd that used to haunt Northeast Washington and nearby borderlands. Remember those guys?

Do you?