Much to the dismay of hunters and conservationists across the country, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Commission voted once again to pull the plug on the state’s long-running spring bear season.
The 5-4 decision, which came during a meeting of the WDFW Commission on Saturday, March 19, reaffirms a similar vote in November of 2021. The November vote unexpectedly canceled the season on grounds that the WDFW’s own population data was inadequate, as well as an ungrounded assertion by certain commissioners that bears are lethargic and vulnerable in the springtime. That decision was met with resounding backlash from the hunting community.
In February, the commission recognized a petition that tabled the November decision and ultimately initiated Saturday’s vote. While proponents of the hunt were hopeful that another vote might reinstate Washington’s spring black bear season, few were surprised when the outcome turned out unfavorably.
MeatEater crew member and Washington resident Jason Phelps said that the vote was as expected as it was disappointing.
“The commission’s decision to do away with spring bear hunting is proof that we are living on a slippery slope,” Phelps said. “When politics and emotion replace science and biology in the decision-making process, these are the kind of results we are going to get.”
In the months between the November vote that canceled spring bear and the March 19 vote that reaffirmed that cancellation, the WDFW Commission has been plagued by internal strife. Commissioners Lorna Smith and Barbara Baker have been steadfast in their opposition to the hunt, while other commissioners—Molly Linville, Kim Thorburn, Don McIsaac, and Jim Anderson—have never wavered in their support of spring bear hunting.
The latter group sided with the staff of WDFW, which has employed its own data to advocate for the hunt since it was initially called into question by a failed lawsuit in December 2020. But Smith and Baker have continued to question the validity of the methods used by WDFW’s staff biologists to gather up-to-date information about the state’s thriving bear population. Smith has gone so far as to call the agency’s methodology “old-fashioned.”
When Fred Koontz, another commissioner who opposed the hunt, abruptly resigned amid the controversy and infighting, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee quickly filled a slew of commission appointments—two of which he’d neglected for well over a year.
Proponents of the hunt speculate that Gov. Inslee’s sudden interest in the commission’s vacant seats—and his appointment of new commissioners who quickly mobilized to vote against the spring bear season—were part of a broader political strategy to whittle away at hunting rights in Washington state.
“Animal rights groups know they have an ally in Gov. Inslee,” said Brian Lynn, a spokesman for the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “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.”
During the meeting leading up to the decision, commissioners heard from Dr. Stephanie Simek, the carnivore, furbearer, and small game section manager for WDFW. In a short presentation, she once again defended her agency’s methodology for monitoring black bear populations and said that the department sets hunting seasons in accordance with the sound data that it collects.
“We use harvest data as a primary component of our management,” Simek told the commission. “But I want to remind folks that we assess the percent of females in the harvest, review the age structure, we assess the trends of that data, and we also factor in the recent density estimates that we’ve been doing, other sources of mortality that we have noted or recorded, and we use this whole system as our guideline for setting seasons and determining whether or not we need to liberalize or restrict those seasons.”
Simek went on to recommend that the commissioners adopt rule changes that would have reinstated the 2022 spring bear season.
Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane supported the motion along with Molly Linville, Jim Anderson, and Don McIsaac.
“I believe that we’ve been provided good information by staff as to why this hunt should be sustained,” Thorburn said during the meeting. “We’ve heard from hunters that it’s a very popular hunt, something that they enjoy and look forward to. We have a healthy black bear population. To me, the question we should be looking at if we’re going to close a season is: Is the population in decline? There’s no evidence that the population is in decline. In fact, those measures that Dr. Simek brought forward, if they suggest anything, there’s evidence that the population may be increasing.”
While Thorburn’s comments spoke volumes about the folly of ending a successful hunting season in the face of sound scientific data that supports it, they weren’t enough to sway any of Gov. Inslee’s newly appointed commissioners. All three of them—John Lehmukl, Tim Ragan, and Melanie Rowland—joined Barbara Baker and Lorna Smith in their vote to end spring bear hunting in Washington State, at least for now.
Shortly after the vote was finalized, the anti-hunting group Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) issued a jubilant press release, applauding the commissioners who voted to suspend the hunt.
“This vote is a big win for both science and black bears and it will protect bear cubs from being orphaned by a reckless spring hunt,” said Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at CBD. “The commission once again told state wildlife officials that they won’t authorize a hunt without a proper analysis of the threats to Washington’s bears. We hope the wildlife agency actually listens this time.”
There is little evidence to support CBD’s persistent claims that cubs are consistently orphaned by spring bear hunters in Washington. In fact, data shows that, of the 45 sows killed during the 2020 spring harvest, only one was lactating.
While it is possible that that single lactating sow left cubs behind, it is just as reasonable to assume that her cubs had already been killed off by a mature boar. Infanticidal behavior is common in black bears, especially within dense populations like those in the Evergreen State.
Even so, the proposed rule changes that the commission struck down on Saturday would have included a provision that prohibited the “harvest of female black bears accompanied by offspring.” This provision honored a request made in the February petition that initiated Saturday’s vote.
Doug Boze is a Washington-based bear hunter and the author of “The Ultimate Guide to Black Bear Hunting.” He has ardently tracked the challenges to his state’s spring bear hunting season from start to finish.
According to Boze, the WDFW Commission will revisit its decision at a meeting in June, but he worries that commissioners will use that review as an opportunity to outlaw spring bear hunting altogether.
“This is not just a pause in the hunt, but a means to an end,” Boze told MeatEater. “When those in charge completely ignore 60-plus years of historical data and dismiss the overwhelmingly supportive science supplied by the department’s own expert biologists, I have to conclude that there is an agenda at play.”
He said that anyone interested in voicing opposition to the commission’s latest decision should contact the board via email.
“To my knowledge, this is a done deal,” Boze said. “For now, the big thing is to just stay aware of what’s going on in your state and be vocal at meetings and during public comment. Hopefully there will be more to come in terms of action.”