Update 8:05 a.m., October 22, 2021: Per Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Larry Carpenter, the period for written public comment on 2022’s spring bear hunting proposals has been extended until 5 p.m., November 1.
Dr. Stephanie Simek’s 35-page presentation includes the agency’s management rationale, history of the hunt that actually dates back nearly 50 years, recent seasons’ harvest, breakdown of kill by sex, next year’s permit levels by units and public comment summary, as well as reasons why the carefully controlled opportunity should continue.
Summarizing, she said it “Supports the mandate of the department, the commission, and the director”; “Allows the department to use recreational hunters as a management tool”; “Maintains Washington’s hunting heritage”; and “Supports conservation of the species.”
It is ultimately up to the commission to make that decision, and given recent history around Evergreen State bruin hunting, as well as input on the spring 2022 edition still flooding into WDFW’s official comment page through today, tomorrow’s meeting of the citizen panel on the subject is sure to be lively.
That’s because just as sportsmen have been rallying to calls to provide their thoughts on next year’s proposed 664 special permits spread across Northeast and Southeast Washington, the Mt. Baker area, and portions of Grays Harbor, Kitsap, Mason and Pacific Counties, others are campaigning to abolish the season – even asking the governor to appoint new “reform-minded” commissioners ahead of the final vote. They claim the spring season is “barbaric” as it targets lethargic animals and results in orphaned cubs, and publicly unpopular.
Then there’s last December’s 8-1 commission vote to greenlight the 2021 hunt which led to a lawsuit by two sisters who claimed WDFW hadn’t adequately made clear it was setting regulations for this year.
Even as a state judge ultimately ruled in early April the season could proceed, it was a clear sign there was a target on the back of bear hunting.
That same month, attempts were made to peel the fall season out of WDFW’s three-year big game hunting package over questions of bruin density in the wake of the doubled Eastern Washington limit.
Fast forward to this week and those who wish to give the Fish and Wildlife Commission a piece of their mind on next spring’s proposed hunt must preregister here by 8 a.m. Friday. A final decision is expected November 19.
It’s against that backdrop that Simek nearly tripled the size of last year’s presentation to the commission.
According to a history she compiled, the spring hunt traces back to 1973 (four years after the species was declared a game animal) when it began as a way to mitigate timber damage caused by bears fresh out of the den. With forage relatively scarce that time of year due to monolithic-stand forestry practices, the animals often target young Douglas firs for the cambium layer and its sugars, harming the economically valuable trees.
By 1999, special permits were granted for the Blue Mountains as a way to mitigate for reduced bear harvest after passage of the baiting ban, Simek details.
In addition to those two reasons, the hunt has also been used as a management tool to distribute bruin harvest around the state, reduce human-bear conflict and address deer and elk fawn and calf recruitment issues.
That last factor is particularly noted for the Blues and Kettle and Selkirk Ranges, where 82 percent of 2022’s permits would be available and include some of the state’ key buck and bull hunting areas.
Even as it and other agencies begin to move toward developing density-based estimates to determine bear abundances as well as evaluate harvest, WDFW currently manages for female bruins to comprise between 35 to 39 percent of the annual harvest; when the kill is higher, they restrict opportunities; when it’s under, they liberalize it. Age of males and females also plays a roll.
According to Simek’s presentation, 2020’s overall spring and fall bear harvest was below that acceptable 35-39 percent range in seven of the eight primary management units, and the other – Okanogan – was still inside the range. The five- and 10-year averages for all units are all below or within the range as well.
(No data is available for the state’s ninth bear unit, comprised of the farmed Columbia Basin and Palouse, almost all of which is poor habitat for the species.)
Sex breakdown by game management unit wasn’t immediately available for 2021’s spring hunt, but the overall harvest was within the acceptable range for females, with preliminary WDFW figures showing that of 124 bears taken, 79, or 64 percent, were male, and 45, or 36 percent, were female.
What’s more, just one of those bears was found to be a lactating female. WDFW implemented required inspections starting with 2020’s season, but it wasn’t done that first year due to Covid.
While lactating sows are not illegal to kill, the regulations say “Hunters should avoid harvesting females with cubs,” a message that is echoed in a letter to those lucky enough to be drawn for a permit. This past season 668 were available, down from the peak of 814 in spring 2017.
WDFW is also proposing to tighten the two-step reporting requirements of bear hunters, including notifying the agency within 72 hours of a kill and scheduling an inspection of the unfrozen pelt with evidence of sex and skull intact within five days of that notice, and filing their hunting report.
Simek summarized public comment WDFW received into seven general themes – opposition to the spring hunt or bear hunts in general; lack of info around the decision or whether the hunts are having their intended purpose (i.e., reducing ungulate neonate losses); potential cub orphaning; demand for over-the-counter bear tags and a general spring season; increased permits and more open units; and additional free access to hunting lands.
Tomorrow, bear hunters and bear hunting opponents will have a chance to reiterate their arguments before the eight members of the commission ahead of their November vote. A four-four tie may – or may not, it’s not entirely clear – be enough to scrub the 2022 season, though this observer thinks five-three or six-two in favor are the more likely outcomes.