Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission Votes to Permanently Eliminate Recreational Spring Bear Hunting

Earlier this year, Living Snoqualmie published an Op-Ed piece urging the public to comment on a new proposed rule for spring bear hunting which would make the season permanent.

On March 19th, the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission rejected the proposed rule in a 5-4 vote. However, the vote on the issue was not permanent, and the commission was scheduled to discuss the issue again on November 18.

In a landmark decision last Friday, the Commission voted to establish a state policy eliminating recreational spring bear hunting. After a lengthy workshop devoted to the discussion of spring bear hunting, the Commission voted 5-4 to approve a policy stating the Commission does not approve “recreational hunting of black bears in the spring.”

Commission Chair Barbara Baker and Commissioners Tim Ragen, Lorna Smith, John Lehmkuhl, and Melanie Rowland supported the new policy, while Vice-Chair Molly Linville and Commissioners Kim Thorburn, Jim Anderson, and Don McIsaac opposed it.

Supporters of the new policy focused on the importance of being faithful to the Commission’s statutory mandate, looking carefully at the science and data, and restoring the public’s trust in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Chair Baker emphasized that the Commission’s failure to definitively decide the spring bear issue has eroded its credibility and contributed to the false impression that there is a “culture war.” She emphasized that when the spring bear hunt began nearly 50 years ago, it was a carefully controlled hunt for clearly delineated management reasons, but it morphed into a recreational hunt without the Commission ever approving that change.

Spring bear hunting is legal in only eight other states, and surveys have long shown that it is deeply unpopular with the Washington public. A recent poll commissioned by Washington Wildlife First confirmed that 80% of Washington voters oppose spring bear hunting, which targets black bears when they are emerging from hibernation, and often leads to the orphaning of nursing cubs. The survey also showed that 69% of Washington voters in hunting households oppose spring bear hunting. 

Commissioners Thorburn and McIsaac insisted that the hunt should continue despite this overwhelming opposition, for the benefit of the few hundred Washingtonians who participate it in each year. Department Director Kelly Susewind, who has vowed that he would bring back the controversial trophy hunt, echoed those demands, insisting it was not enough for hunters to only be able to kill bears during the fall season that runs from August to November.

“Spring hunting is very different… I can tell you from personal experience, my first game animal was a spring bear 51 years ago, that it is a very different experience,” Susewind said. “Don’t say my opportunity [to kill bears] in the fall replaces my opportunity in the spring. It does not. .…Don’t tell me that it is the same thing, and that if I kill a bear in the fall, it is the same as if I kill a bear in the spring. It’s just not.”

Samantha Bruegger of Washington Wildlife First said that the personal hunting preferences of the agency director should not control Washington’s wildlife policy.

“Washington’s wildlife policy should reflect the values and ethics of all the people of the state, not just the fewer than 3% who hunt, the even smaller percentage that hunts bears, or the few hundred that hunt bears in the spring,” she said. “I am a hunter, but I do not believe that my recreational interests entitle me to dictate how Washington manages its wildlife, and neither should the preferences of the Department director.”

Friday’s vote marks the end of the Commission’s lengthy discussion of this subject, which began more than two years ago after citizens first raised serious concerns about the lack of scientific justification for the hunt.

Late last year, a short-staffed Commission voted 4-4 not to approve the Department management’s request for a spring 2022 bear hunt. Since that time, that decision has been criticized by bear hunters from around the country, who have proclaimed that the vote was the first step in a broad conspiracy to eliminate all hunting in Washington.

“Most Washingtonians support the continuation of legal, regulated hunting—as does Washington Wildlife First and every single member of the Commission. But that does not mean hunting without limits, and we join the vast majority of the Washington public in believing that it is wrong to kill bears in the spring just for ‘recreation,’ at a time when bears are just emerging from hibernation, many are near starvation, and bear cubs are still nursing,” said Claire Loebs Davis, president of Washington Wildlife First

“It is absurd to say that today’s vote is the first step toward eliminating hunting in Washington, but we do hope that the Commission’s steadfast stand on the spring bear issue will be remembered as the end to the Commission rubber stamp, and as one of the first steps in successfully demanding more transparency, accountability, and honesty from Department management.”

Comments

  1. Dave Stermer says

    I think it’s about time to eliminate the appointed position of wildlife commisioners. They need to be elected by the public based on their position on hunting and fishing. Not appointed by
    a far left liberal, anti gun, anti hunting governor that would have no qualms about eliminating hunting completely in our once fine state of Washington. These appointed commission positions are a
    Good example of the deep state. People that set policy and don’t have to worry about losing their seats for bad decisions.

    • So they should instead be elected by the far left, anti-firearms, anti-hunting, anti-liberty, anti-personal responsibility, low information voters of Washington? The same voters who think owning a dog makes them “moms,” murdering babies is a “right,” and who think all that delicious meat in the grocery store just magically appears from the ether? The same voters who consistently vote down almost every tax measure on every ballot while at the same time voting for representatives of a party whose platform for at least the past 50 years has been tax and spend? The same ones in King County who literally voted away their own right to vote by making Sheriff appointed instead of elected?

      Yeah, that’s not going to be any better.

  2. A good decision by commissioners who considered the science, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC), and the majority opinion of Washington residents. For years when both hunters and non-hunters asked the commission to stop the Spring bear hunt, the agency claimed it needed the hunt for scientific and management purposes. Finally, when pushed to show its reasons, the agency admitted it was just a recreational limited-draw hunt. Earlier, Washington State courts had ruled illegal the agency’s spring-time timber-damage bear hunt using dogs. The agency was unable to show the hunt achieved its stated objectives.

    The NAMWC has “seven sisters (pillars)” of conservation, several of which directly apply here:

    •Wildlife belongs to all (the Public Trust Doctrine). An 1842 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, in Martin v. Waddell, established the legal precedent that it was the government’s responsibility to hold wild nature in trust for all citizens.

    •Democratic Rule of Law. Wildlife is allocated for use by citizens through laws. This protects against the rise of elites who would appropriate wildlife to themselves (as occurred in Europe). All citizens can participate, if necessary through the courts, in developing systems of wildlife conservation and use.

    •Science and Wildlife Policy. Science is identified as a crucial requirement of wildlife management. For this Aldo Leopold, in his 1930 American Game Policy, credited Theodore Roosevelt, explicitly stating that science should be the underpinning of wildlife policies.

    The other pillars are not directly relevant, here.

    Most hunters are unaware that the state’s own current research shows the bear population is one-third lower, 20,000 individuals, than the typically published 30,000 number. The latter estimate was based on a text more than 40-years old, and was a rough estimate, repeated year after year. Only 25% of hunters that kill a bear submit a bear tooth as required by law. These same hunters defy the law and cripple the science that helps biologists understand the dynamics of Washington’s black bear population. Yet, these hunters claim they want science used to manage bear populations.

    Fewer than 2.3% of Washington residents purchase hunting licenses. Fewer than 0.8% buy a bear tag. Hunters that advocate for elected wildlife commissioners might find that they have created a commission that greatly reduces trophy hunting in Washington. A recent survey showed that 80% of WA citizens oppose a spring bear hunt, the season when bears and cubs are leaving their winter hibernation, or, torpor.

    The WFWC made a decision that is consistent with science, the NAMWC, and the people of Washington who are equal holders in our wildlife trust.

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