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On November 18th, the Washington State Game Commission (Commission) voted 5 to 4 to stop a limited draw spring black bear hunt. A move contradictory to recommendations from the Washington public and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists.
The Washington spring bear hunt has been around for over 20 years and the bear population has remained sustainable at over 20,0001. Statistics suggest that approximately 25 percent of spring tag holders are successful, and the spring hunt accounts for less than 10 percent of the total annual black bear harvest, which averages around 1,600 bears statewide2.
The Commission took issue with the hunt being offered as “recreational” and stated they “[do] not approve recreational hunting of black bears in the spring.” The Commission did allow room for future specific “management” hunts, but this suggests that the Commission is disconnected with the science behind setting tag numbers and seasons for big game.
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WDFW identified the spring hunt as meeting all management needs in their most recent 2015-2021 Wildlife Management Plan3, with which the Commission appears to be unfamiliar. Additionally, WDFW is tasked with selling two types of fish and wildlife harvest licenses via state legislature – recreational and commercial. Therefore, the spring bear hunt was offered as a “recreational” opportunity, not necessarily a hunt “just for fun”.
Further evidence that the Commission is out of touch with science and wildlife management was the comment from Commissioner Tim Ragen, stating “I think harvesting animals during the reproductive period does not make sense.” A puzzling statement considering the deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn rut commonly falls within the fall hunting season for these species across many states. Washington is an exception, where rut hunts are typically limited draw only.
The public raised concerns that the Commission made a policy decision without properly considering public input and following appropriate State Environmental Policy Act procedures, which require an analysis of the potential effects of government decisions on the human environment.
“[The public notice] stated that [the Commission] would be holding a workshop to discuss how they would go about making policy. At no time did they disclose that they planned on ending the season completely”, said Marie Neumiller, executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
Eliminating Washington’s spring bear hunt could lead to increased human conflict with bears, as well as impacts to ungulate populations through deer fawn or elk calf predation in areas with a high black bear density, like the Blue Mountains.
Dan Wilson with the Washington Backcountry Hunters and Anglers expressed concern with the Commission “…attacking the core model of when and how game is ethically and legally pursued [throughout] North America.”
The Commission made it clear that sound science and public input are ancillary considerations regarding the management of public resources in Washington. This sets a dangerous precedent for the future of public hunting opportunity in the state, and the example for opinion to override objective science.