If you had any doubt that Washington predator management wasn’t under a microscope, what were described by WDFW as “minor” changes to 2021 spring bear permit hunts drew the threat of a lawsuit.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission last Friday morning went ahead and made those tweaks – standardizing season lengths for the 668 special tags available; clarifying the harvested bear check-in process; removing Weyerhaeuser lands from a Skagit hunt; and reducing Long Beach permits by two – on an 8-1 vote but members want to “continue discussion of the broader topic in the future.”
They took that action and made the promise as an attorney for Martha Hall and Sharon Stroble claimed the citizen panel “has not followed legally required procedures in consideration of this rule” and said that the two sisters would be asking a judge for an injunction to stop the 2021 season, now set to run April 15-June 15.
The nut of their complaint is that WDFW allegedly didn’t properly announce that the commission was going to authorize a spring season.
“To the contrary, the Department’s [proposed rulemaking notice] indicated that these amendments were merely to ‘align season dates; adjust permit numbers where needed and clarify information about biological samples collected from harvested bears,” wrote their attorney Claire Loebs Davis of Animal & Earth Advocates of Seattle.
The hunt is held to reduce timber damage by hungry bears in spring, increase fawn and elk calf survival, and reduce the odds of bruin-human conflict.
Hall and Stroble want WDFW to resubmit the 2021 proposals for public comment and consider arguments for and against the hunt, which they say has drawn opposition as “cruel, unethical, and unpopular.”
Based on the agency’s August 17 announcement of proposed changes and October’s call for public comment, doing the process over again would not only overlap the special application period in February for the spring season but not wrap up until late April or early May, well into the hunt.
Before the Fish and Wildlife Commission made its decision, it heard from its own lawyer, Joe Panesko of the state Attorney General’s Office.
“With respect to the litigation threat, there are litigation threats made against various decisions of the commission and the department. Over time, they’re becoming more common, actually, and sometimes those threats are followed through and cases are filed, and sometimes they’re not. And when cases are filed, we are here to defend the actions of the agency. … The commission is free to proceed with this action item as planned,” Panesko said.
The agenda for the meeting lists it as a “decision” to be made by the commission. Mostly they vote to adopt staff recommendations brought before them; sometimes they don’t.
Game Division Manager Anis Aoude pointed out that the state game management plan for bears allows for both recreational and damage control hunts, and that the season traces back to 2002.
This year’s permit level is down from the 814 awarded in 2017 and 781 in 2018 and 2019, and fewest since 2012’s 634.
Besides the lawsuit threat, the issue drew a fair amount of comments against it, but also support from the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s Marie Neumiller.
At an early December commission, Neumiller called the spring season a management tool for addressing predation on young deer and elk, as well as addressing human-bear conflicts, and could be carefully controlled through permit-only hunts.
“Maintaining spring bear seasons and working closely with the biologists and your stakeholder group can ensure we protect and even improve our predator and prey populations,” Neumiller said. “We appreciate the intense work that the department does to track breeding age female mortality numbers and how those numbers are being used to create harvest guidelines that guide your management strategies.”
Per WDFW stats, sows have on average over the past 10 years comprised from 31 to 37 percent of the harvest in the state’s eight bear management units, well below levels where the agency would consider restricting hunting.