OUTDOORS: Spring bear hunts halted on emotional, not factual basis

Black bear population stable; nursing sows not targeted by hunters

By emphasizing emotional pleas over statistical data, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission may have poked some sleeping bear hunters.

At its Nov. 19 meeting, commission members suspended the 2022 spring black bear hunting season by virtue of a 4-4 tie, with a majority vote required to approve the by-permit hunt.

Commission members previously heard a briefing about the proposed 2022 spring bear special permits and received public testimony at its Oct. 22 meeting, then held an additional special meeting on the topic Nov. 15.

Kickback on the decision arrived this week in the form of pieces by themeateater.com, Northwest Sportsman Magazine and other outdoors outlets.

TheMeatEater.com’s Travis Hall wrote that opposition to the spring hunts first sprouted in December 2020 when two state residents, Sharon Stroble and her sister, Martha Hall, hired an attorney specializing in animal rights and sued the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, alleging the department failed to notify the public about approval of the spring season.

Calling the hunts, “cruel and completely unneccessary” in an article by The Spokesman Review, the sisters’ case was eventually dismissed in Thurston County Superior Court, but the suit drew interest from national anti-hunting groups like the Humane Society of the United States.

These groups argue that spring bear hunts are “exceptionally cruel” because they target bears that are potentially slow and vulnerable because of their recent emergence from hibernation.

Another claim, that spring bear hunts target nursing sows and leave a wake of orphaned cubs in their wake, is not backed up by Fish and Wildlife field data or by anecdote.

Stephanie Simek, the agency’s large carnivore section manager, cites studies showing that bear hunting accounts for less than 2 percent of cub mortality in the state. And of the 45 sows killed during the 2020 spring harvest, only one was lactating.

That jives with what longtime hunters know about the habits of the ursine set when they wake up from that long winter’s nap. The first bears to emerge are typically boars, with nursing sows and cubs the last to leave dens.

Commissioner Lorna Smith of Discovery Bay called the agency’s data-gathering methods “old-fashioned” during the Nov. 19 hearing.

“We really need to be sure about our bear population at this point in time,” Smith said. “We don’t know exactly what the population is, because the model, by our own admission, is not that reliable. I’m very concerned that our harvest rate right now, spring and fall combined, could be at a point that is not sustainable.”

Simek dismissed bear population concerns in recommending the hunt during the October meeting.

“When we look at the current view of the Washington population as a whole, we have a robust black bear population statewide,” Simek said. “If we thought there were going to be concerns that we were dipping or losing population numbers, we wouldn’t be offering these spring permits.”

To let the commission know your opinion on this matter, email [email protected], or call 360-902-2267.

A formal petition form to repeal an administrative rule also exists on the agency’s website.

And a Change.org petition has drawn more than 13,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon at tinyurl.com/PDN-Change Petition.

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected] news.com.

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