Will Washington State Hunters Reclaim Their Spring Bear Season?

Will Washington State Hunters Reclaim Their Spring Bear Season?

In November 2021, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to suspend the state’s long-running spring black bear hunt.

The decision, ushered in by a 4-4 split among commissioners, was not based on the science-backed statistics of Washington’s black bear populations. The number of bears in the state is robust and growing. Nor was it a tailored attempt by agency biologists to curb harvest quotas in one management zone or another; it effectively banned spring bear hunting statewide.

Instead, the decision was meant to address a groundswell of emotional opposition to the idea of hunting bears in the spring, opposition that was strategically fueled by anti-hunting special interest groups.

In the days and weeks following the 4-4 vote, hunters pushed back in force. One commissioner stepped down amid the turmoil. Around the time of that resignation, conservationists submitted a legal petition that could re-initiate the spring season. The commission will consider that petition at a special meeting later this month. Alongside the petition, there is a movement afoot to oust Commissioner Lorna Smith, whose brief track record seems to indicate an anti-hunting agenda.

Hunter Pushback Bryce Levin is the conservation and policy leader for the Washington Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s been working to get the spring bear season reinstated since it was halted back on Nov. 19, 2021.

“There’s definitely a strategy,” Levin told MeatEater. “These anti-hunting groups are always on the lookout for low hanging fruit, and our spring bear season just happened to be one of them.”

Levin is one of many Washingtonians who find themselves on the front lines of a fight to reclaim their spring bear season. Jason Phelps is a MeatEater crew member and the founder of Phelps Game Calls, as well as a Washington native who frequently hunts bears in the state. Like Levin, he believes the upending of Washington’s spring bear season is part of a broader strategy to undermine hunting and conservation.

“This is politics spilling over into science,” Phelps said. “We have a governor here that is very easily swayed by special interest groups, and he is in charge of appointing these commissioners. My biggest concern is that, down the road, we’re going to get into a situation where the science and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation are no longer used. And if some of these special interest groups can get their initiatives on a ballot, we’re now managing wildlife through voting. If that happens in this state, we’re doomed.”

Phelps said that Washington’s hunting community should have been quicker to react to the impending erasure of their spring bear hunting rights.

“It’s unfortunate that we [hunters] waited until the point that we actually lost our spring bear season to rise up,” he said. “We were kind of blindsided by this.”

If the collective reaction of Washington’s resident hunters was slow to materialize, some argue that was part of the opposition’s strategy.

“They [the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission] had the meeting where they accepted public comments about the ethics of spring bear hunting via Zoom on the second Friday of our two-week general deer season,” Washington resident and avid bear hunter Doug Boze told MeatEater.

A Skagit County native, Boze is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Black Bear Hunting. Like Levin and Phelps, he is now embroiled in the battle to reinstate Washington’s spring bear season.

“Of course we didn’t show up to the public comment session,” he said. “We didn’t show up because we were out hunting, and it was never on the commission’s docket that the ethics of the spring hunt were in question.”

The Path Forward It didn’t take long for hunters to mobilize once the commission put a halt to spring bear hunting.

First, there was a Change.org petition put out by the founders of Pacific North Wild, a hunting-focused media company that produces the PNWild Podcast. It questions the validity of a wildlife management decision that gives more credence to public outcry than the hard science of WDFW staff biologists. As of this writing, it has accrued more than 20,000 signatures.

Then, on Dec. 16, 2021, the commission received a formal petition that it will consider during a special meeting on Jan. 21, 2022. This petition was filed by the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, MeatEater, Blood Origins, Safari Club International, and other groups. It requests an administrative rule change that, if honored, could make the technicality that eliminated the spring bear season back in November null and void.

In a letter accompanying the petition, the signatories wrote that “removing spring bear hunting without proper notification to the public has eroded trust in the commission, impacted WDFW management plans, reduced WDFW revenue, and resulted in confusion.”

“The hope of this petition is to ask for a revote,” said Levin of Washington BHA. “Any of the commissioners who voted ‘no’ have the ability to call for a revote.”

A Resignation Offers Hope Of the four commissioners who voted to end spring bear hunting in Washington, only three remain. Fred Koontz, a former zoologist who was one of the commission’s more outspoken critics of Washington’s spring bear season, abruptly resigned in the wake of the blowback from hunters.

His resignation took the number of commission members from an even eight to a more tie-breaker friendly total of seven. By law, the commission is supposed to have nine members—four from the east side of the state, four from the west, and one at-large member who can reside anywhere.

Historically, eastside commissioners have tended to sympathize more strongly with hunters and anglers, while westside members tend to represent a more preservationist worldview. For more than a year now, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has let a crucial eastside commission seat sit vacant.

In a resignation letter addressed to Gov. Inslee, Fred Koontz cited a “political quagmire” and said he “questioned the department’s [WDFW] leadership on a number of their decisions.”

According to Levin, Koontz’s resignation reconfigures the Washington Fish and Game Commission in a way that could be more advantageous for hunters.

“We could end up with a favorable outcome if we can get one of the commissioners who voted to stop spring bear to request a revote based on the facts and concerns that we presented in our petition,” he said. “Even if everyone voted the same, we would get a 4-3 decision now, which would put the season back on for 2022.”

Both Levin and Boze think that Commission Chairman Larry Carpenter could be the one to bring forward a revote.

“He is usually a guy that votes on the side of science and hunters,” Boze said. “He’s a local guy that lives in my area. I could see him possibly requesting a revote, but the other two [Barbara Baker and Lorna Smith], I wouldn’t put my money on them whatsoever.”

A Stalwart Ally One of the commissioners who voted to keep spring bear in place during the Nov. 19 hearing was Dr. Kim Thorburn of Spokane.

A retired public health physician who came to a passion for wildlife conservation by way of her love of bird watching, Thorburn has emerged as one of the strongest allies for WDFW’s staff scientists and the hunters who rely on their work.

She says she has reviewed the petition issued by the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, BHA, MeatEater, and others, and she finds it to be an interesting and well-thought-out proposal.

“They raised some legal questions and some cultural questions,” Thorburn told MeatEater. “I think it was very thoughtfully put together.”

In her opinion, even if the petition doesn’t result in the immediate restoration of the 2022 spring bear season, it could protect against similar challenges to future spring bear hunts.

“Accepting a petition doesn’t immediately evoke a rule change, “ she said. “So it’s not clear in any way that this petition would restore spring bear this season. Speaking for myself and not for the commission, what I think is good about it is that it would be protective of spring bear in the future.”

A Fox Guarding the Hen House In a recent episode of the MeatEater Podcast, MeatEater Founder Steven Rinella succinctly described the situation in Washington.

“When you think of a fish and game commission, you think of people who are predisposed to be supportive of hunting and of the responsible use of natural resources,” he said. “But in Washington, they’ve had a lot of very, very left-wing governors for a very long time who have packed the commission full of people who not only are antagonistic to hunting but are outspoken critics of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”

Along with Fred Koontz, Lorna Smith has been one of the commission’s loudest critics of spring bear hunting. She says that hunting bears in the springtime is unethical and she questions WDFW’s methods for gathering bear population data, which she called “old fashioned.”

In a recent commission meeting, Smith said that “the argument is strong that the hunting of bears, as they emerge from hibernation, when they’re thin, starving, lethargic, and less able to avoid threats, violates the hunting ethics of fair chase.”

It’s a statement that has hunters and conservationists alarmed because it veers so wildly from the firsthand experiences of people who actually spend time pursuing black bears in the spring.

“When the season begins, the boars are cruising,” Phelps said. “And if you’re targeting a boar, which the vast majority of hunters are, there is nothing lethargic about them. To any of these people who say they sit still, I would tell them to come over to the Blue Mountains with me and try to run one of these things down. They are literally on a warpath trying to find a sow in heat.”

Based on her stated opposition to spring bear hunting from a position of ethics and her unwillingness to accept the science presented by WDFW’s staff biologists, Lorna Smith has become a target for outright removal from the commission.

Bryce Levin and Washington BHA are leading the charge to do just that.

“It’s pretty obvious that Lorna Smith came into the Nov. 19 vote with an agenda that she was looking to make some progress on,” Levin said. “She started questioning the biologists at the department about the legitimacy of spring bear on Oct. 22. It’s kind of hard not to jump to the conclusion that there was a collaborative effort to create a wedge here.”

In the time between Oct. 22, when Commissioner Smith began questioning the validity of WDFW’s black bear population statistics, and Nov. 19, when the 4-4 split vote ended the spring season, there was a tidal wave of national attention driven to this local issue.

It’s now clear that the attention was generated through the social media followings and email subscriber lists of groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity. But Levin suspects that Lorna Smith may have tipped those organizations off to the impending rule changes that she herself initiated.

“It definitely appears that there were some eyes on the inside that drove the direction of the public comments,” he said.

Lorna Smith has yet to be confirmed by the Washington State Senate. Levin and BHA are lobbying senators on the seven-member Natural Resources Committee to bring forward a formal vote to either accept or reject Smith’s appointment to the commission.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations with a couple of these committee members,” Levin said. “They’re aware of some of the concerns and said that when they reconvene in January or February it will be on the docket for them to make a formal recommendation for the Senate to vote on Lorna Smith. Hopefully we can have them walk away from that with a recommendation to reject.”

Take Action There are a number of ways that hunters and conservation advocates can lend support to the ongoing efforts to reinstate Washington’s spring bear season.

For starters, you can send a comment directly to the commission through this form on the WDFW website. Proponents of reinstating the spring bear season are using the form to urge the commissioners to follow the science and data provided by WDFW when making wildlife management decisions.

According to WDFW Director Kelly Susewind, public comments to commissioners can go a long way.

“If you are the side of the coin that thinks we need to reestablish those seasons, I would encourage you to make sure you’re informed,” Susewind said. “Track what’s going on and reach out to commissioners and let them know that. Commissioners put a lot of value in what we hear from the public.”

Washington BHA is encouraging its members to contact the Washington Senate Natural Resources Committee, which can provide a recommendation to either confirm or reject Commissioner Lorna Smith. Additional action items are compiled at this link on the BHA website.

If you would like to tune in to the Jan. 21 meeting of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, where commissioners will consider the spring bear hunting petition, you can do so here. Those looking to provide public testimony during the meeting must first register at this link.

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