Bear hunting opportunities in the Pacific Northwest will be a little scarcer after Washington state’s permit-only spring black bear hunt was suspended amid public outcry fueled by anti-hunting advocacy groups.
The suspension came about after the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's governor-appointed board of commissioners failed to reach a consensus in a routine rule-making vote that would have allowed the long-held season to continue.
Opposition to the spring bear season began to crop up back in December of 2020 when two Washington residents hired an animal rights attorney and filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), alleging that the agency had failed to adequately notify the public about its approval of the spring season, which has been in place in one form or another since 1973.
Around the time of the lawsuit, Sharon Stroble, one of two individuals listed as plaintiffs—the other was her sister, Martha Hall—told The Spokesman-Review that the state’s spring bear hunt was “cruel and completely unnecessary.”
“I’m confident that most Washingtonians would oppose it if they knew about it,” Stroble said. “We understand that the department has the authority to authorize a spring bear hunt, but it also has a legal obligation to give Washington citizens the opportunity to speak up and have their voices heard about this abhorrent practice.”
Though Stroble and Hall’s case was struck down in Thurston County Superior Court, public opposition to spring bear hunting in Washington state continued to gain momentum. Anti-hunting groups like the Humane Society of the United States seized the opportunity, delivering the localized issue to a national audience while advancing a narrative of spring bear hunting as cruel and inhumane.
These groups claim that spring bear seasons are “exceptionally cruel” because they allow for easy killing of lethargic bears that are slow and vulnerable due to their recent emergence from hibernation. They also espouse the flawed notion that big numbers of cubs will be “orphaned” as so many lactating sows are inevitably felled by indiscriminate hunters.
While emotionally compelling, these claims are not borne out in the harvest data that is routinely collected and analyzed by WDFW.
According to Stephanie Simek, the agency’s large carnivore section manager, studies show that bear hunting accounts for less than 2% of cub mortality in Washington state. Of the 45 sows killed during the 2020 spring harvest, only one was lactating.
Bear hunting guru and MeatEater crew member Clay Newcomb says that concerns about cubs being orphaned and left to die during spring bear hunts are overblown.
“Spring seasons are set up to protect females,” Newcomb said. “Early in the year when these seasons are taking place, boars are out of the dens much earlier, and the sows with cubs are the last ones to emerge.”
He said that even if a small percentage of cub mortality can be attributed to hunter harvest, it is quickly outweighed by the higher number of boars taken out of the population by hunters. Since boars are prone to infanticide, they often cause high rates of cub mortality within dense black bear populations. Thinning boar numbers tends to keep more cubs alive.
Logical fallacies aside, the opposition to Washington’s spring hunt remained an issue throughout 2021, spurred on by the easy access that hunting opponents now have to WDFW commissioners via COVID-era virtual hearings.
This opposition came to a crescendo on Friday, Nov. 19 when the commissioners voted in a 4-4 split to not approve new rules for what would have been the 2022 spring black bear season.
According to WDFW Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane, who is in favor of continuing the hunt, Washington’s spring bear season is now closed until further notice because of a technicality.
“The vote for the season was four to four,” Thornburn told MeatEater. “Because you have to have a majority to pass new regulations, we were left with the existing rules, which only apply to 2021. So that basically closes the season. We don’t have a rule for 2022.”
A House Divided The four commissioners who opposed the spring hunt—Barbara Baker, Lorna Smith, Larry Carpenter, and Fred Koontz—offered up justifications for their respective opposition during the virtual Zoom hearing held on Nov. 19.
High on the list for some of the commissioners who spoke up was what they perceived as the Washington public’s waning support for spring bear hunting.
“I believe that we can agree that spring bear hunting is and has been a controversial issue,” said committee chair and Olympia resident Barbara Baker in a prepared statement that she read during the hearing. “I think that we can agree that most bear hunters would like to see the hunt continue, and I’m aware that some of them are concerned that this vote will signal whether this commission is becoming anti-hunting or not.”
She went on to say that she does not believe that the state’s long-standing spring hunt is rooted in sound science.
“Eliminating the spring bear hunt has become somewhat of a cause for many of the citizens in this state,” she said. “Opponents of the spring hunt are essentially asking ‘the why’ of the hunt. I don’t believe science is really a factor, and here’s why: the main reasons that Washington gives as support for spring bear hunting are recreation, timber management and ungulate recruitment. That all makes sense to me, and it’s intuitive. I believe that for many years that was good enough for many Washingtonians, but they have told us loudly and clearly that that is no longer the case. We haven’t heard one word from the public to substantiate these objectives. We work for the people of this state, only 2.3% of which are hunters.”
During the same meeting, Commissioner Fred Koontz, a retired zoologist who occupies the commission’s “at-large” position and resides in King County echoed the sentiments of Chairwoman Baker, saying that the WDFD commission has an obligation to monitor the public’s perception of hunting and to take that into account when setting policy.
“It’s the role of the commission to keep an eye on what the values in the public are,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve been doing for 100 years with hunting. I think that this is our job to weigh the values. This is really an issue about recreational hunting in the spring and how the general public feels about that, especially when you consider what the other non-recreational benefits are. If we’re not here to help with that, then I don’t know how we set policy in a fair way.”
Another commissioner, Lorna Smith of Jefferson County, challenged the scientific methods used by WDFW to gather population data on bear populations, calling the agency’s methodology “old-fashioned.”
“We really need to be sure about our bear population at this point in time,” Smith said in the Nov. 19 hearing. “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.”
Smith’s concerns about the sustainability of Washington’s black bear populations run counter to the agency’s own data and the claims of wildlife biologists like Stephanie Simek.
“When we look at the current view of the Washington population as a whole, we have a robust black bear population statewide,” Simek said in another Zoom hearing held in October. “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.”
Kim Thorburn thinks that the criticism being leveled by some of her fellow commissioners at WDFW’s biologists and scientists, and the methods they use to determine the population densities of Washington’s large carnivores, is unfair and inaccurate.
“They use standard monitoring obtained through hunter harvest data,” Thornburn told MeatEater. “We know we’ve got a healthy bear population. All we’re trying to do is make sure we’re not hunting in a way that could disrupt those populations. You can do that by looking at the number of bears taken, and then the gender and the age structure. That’s how it’s done all over the country with the carnivores, and we’re doing it just like everyone else.”
She also raised concerns about some of the recent appointments to the board.
“A number of commissioner’s terms ended in December of 2020,” she said. “There is still one seat that remains unoccupied, and some of the commissioners who are being appointed are pretty opposed to game management.”
Take Action Hunters and conservation advocates opposed to this blatant injection of politics and public sentiment into Washington’s long-standing tradition of sound bear management can voice their opinions in several ways.
First is a Change.org petition that seeks to bring back the 2022 spring bear hunt. It has currently amassed more than 7,000 signatures. You can sign that petition here.
Readers can also contact the WDFW commission directly via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 360-902-2267.
There is also a formal petition form on WDFW’s website for anyone seeking to repeal a state administrative rule. According to Commissioner Thorburn, all such petitions must be addressed by the committee.
“Our rules can be petitioned,” she said. “I don’t know if it could happen fast enough, but there’s a whole process and we have to respond to a rule petition. I think it’s a 60-day turnaround. That’s a process that I haven’t seen anybody consider yet.”