Washington’s 2022 limited-entry spring bear hunt was again defeated as the Fish and Wildlife Commission this morning struck it down on a 4-5 vote.
It’s a bitter pill for Evergreen State hunters and organizations who did well to rise to the occasion after this year’s season was paused last November and they successfully petitioned the commission in a January 4-3 vote to reinitiate rulemaking for a season.
But three additions to the citizen panel immediately afterwards by Governor Jay Inslee always gave final approval much tougher odds, and they dipped sharply when new member John Lehmkuhl of Wenatchee – who says he’s a hunter – made it clear in recent days that there already were three and a half months to hunt bruins in late summer and fall.
A last-ditch compromise for an even shorter spring season with fewer tags and new bear ID requirements also failed on the same 4-5 vote.
Today’s vote is the culmination of an effort to derail the hunt that began in December 2020 with a threatened lawsuit against 2021’s edition. While followed through on and ultimately unsuccessful in court, it was only a matter of time.
“I wish I could say this was unexpected, but it wasn’t,” said Brian Lynn of Liberty Lake and a spokesman for the national Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Washington state is a friendly testing grounds for the animal-rights movement, and they know they have an ally in Gov. Inslee. His most recent appointments to the commission show they’re happy to continue pushing an ideological agenda over accepted science. This board is so out of touch with legitimate game management, spring bear season is going to be the least of hunters’ issues – more attacks on predator management are on the way, changes to the commission’s mandate and, of course, impacts to ungulate herds and loss of hunting opportunity for them.”
Another called it a “very dark day” for Washington hunting, and there are very serious concerns about the commission’s new tack around the “precautionary principle” and how far that will go beyond sportsmen’s decades-long embrace of the conservation concept, born out of the North American Model of Wildlife Management.
Meanwhile over in Spokane, Marie Neumiller took a moment away from troubleshooting at the huge Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show to say that the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council was “disappointed in the vote.”
Neumiller’s name and organization – along with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, MeatEater, Wenatchee Sportsmen Association and others – were on the citizen petition that led to the reinitiation of rulemaking around the hunt two months ago.
“We’re disappointed the commission didn’t heed the advice of the professional staff of the department,” she said, adding that the panel had misunderstood the petition, which was about season dates, not the ethics of the hunt.
“They didn’t listen to or understand our petition,” Neumiller said.
Voting in favor of the hunt were Kim Thorburn of Spokane, who made the motion to hold it and she was seconded by Jim Anderson of Buckley. Don McIsaac of Clark County and Molly Linville of Douglas County also supported it.
They touched on WDFW’s standing Game Management Plan, mandate to maximize opportunities, and agency managers’ judgment that the population is healthy enough to withstand the season, which this year would have offered 664 permits across select units in Northeast and Southeast Washington, the North Cascades and a swath of Western Washington from the Kitsap Peninsula southwest. The tightly controlled hunt began some 50 years ago on a more limited scale. Permits peaked at 814 in 2017 and declined since. High harvest in recent years was 145 in 2020.
McIsaac said that going to zero on the number of spring bear permits was “not right” under the policy guidelines of the statewide game plan, and called it a “traditional” hunt common to the West.
“I don’t see one good reason to go to zero on a traditional hunt,” he said.
Voting against the hunt were Commissioners Lorna Smith of Port Townsend, Tim Ragen of Anacortes, Melanie Rowland of Twisp, Barbara Baker of Olympia and Lehmkuhl.
They continue to ask for more data on Washington’s population beyond what their own agency biologists provided over and over, and said it was a matter of policy.
Ragen seemed to indicate that if new information bears out that the hunt is sustainable, it would put it on a stronger standing for reinstatement. Lehmkuhl said it wasn’t the end of spring bear hunting.
Baker spoke to an epiphany she had overhearing a WDFW’s staffer’s exasperation about the commission just getting on with the business of approving it because it’s “just another hunt.”
“Wow, they really believe that,” Baker said. “I don’t believe it’s just another hunt … until we define the reason for the hunt.”
The season is a combination of unique recreational opportunity, preventing timber damage and reducing predation on deer fawns and elk calves, which are targeted by bears during late spring’s birth pulses, and to some degree human safety.
Figuring out the hunt’s purpose will help determine the info needed to support it to then bring to the public, Baker said.
In a Hail Mary bid, McIsaac proposed reducing permit numbers in Northeast Washington by 63 and Western Washington by a dozen or so, chopping six days off the already shortened season and requiring hunters take a course on identifying sows and cubs, but it was a no-go for the majority of the commission over concerns it was something of a surprise proposal and there were still population issues to figure out. Lehmkuhl said he thought it even with a 20 percent success rate, it would still “depopulate large sections of GMUs,” comments he later retracted.
The commission will take up the subject of the Game Management Plan in June debates, which will be right around the time that hunters could have been hunting bears in the Blues, where the local elk herd is “at-risk.” Anderson twice rued the missed opportunity. The commission is also being briefed this morning on one tribe’s perspective about the importance of wapiti in that region.
The upcoming review of WDFW’s Game Management Plan, which guides hunting for six years at a shot, means it is critical that Washington hunters, advocates and reporters not let today’s setback discourage them and to stay involved instead.
Commission members also chose a new chair, electing Baker on a 6-3 vote. Baker was unhesitatingly nominated by Lehmkuhl. Thorburn was the other candidate. Neither are hunters or anglers, but Thorburn has become an ally of recreational interests and she highlighted her extensive chops in being involved with WDFW’s myriad missions in a pitch to fellow commissioners. The chair vote deserves a massive story of its own but I need to do some other work now.