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Monday, October 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Eli Francovich: Wildlife policy makers try to “get as much information as we can”

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 14, 2019, 8:30 a.m.

In this July 25, 2014,  photo, a black bear in captivity awaits handouts at the the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)
In this July 25, 2014, photo, a black bear in captivity awaits handouts at the the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

A portion of an article in last Sunday’s outdoors section didn’t sit well with one Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioner.

“I was a little off-put by the implication in your article that our new fall bear season was adopted for social and political reasons without considering the almighty house of science,” wrote commissioner (and Spokane resident) Kim Thorburn in an email.

She was referencing an article detailing black bear research done in Northeast Washington this summer. In particular, she took exception to the idea that a change in black bear hunting rules was made for social and political reasons, rather than scientific ones.

In reality, she said, the commission and other wildlife managers, tasked with establishing hunting rules and policy, consider a broad array of factors.

“We’re using lots and lots of information,” she said in an interview this week. “We are using data in policy setting. It’s not just the hard biology. There is social science. There are values.

“It’s all important data.”

Her point is a good one. Namely, wildlife management can be a messy and complicated discussion, one that touches on deeply held values and traditions.

While hard science is invaluable – i.e., population density studies such as the one being conducted in Washington – it’s not infallible.

“We all have biases,” Thorburn wrote in the email. “Our own are very difficult to identify but are extremely important to understand in observational sciences like wildlife and population biology that depend on sampling and statistical corrections for the samples. What variables one chooses have influence and probably reflect the researcher’s bias.”

Which, of course, doesn’t mean hard science is bunk and useless, a conspiracy used by the government to take away freedoms. It’s not.

But, Thorburn reiterated, that it’s not the only thing policy makers should consider. Localized knowledge, whether it’s the stories passed through the eons by indigenous peoples or the observations of hunters who’ve stumbled over the same piece of land for decades searching for whitetails, warrant consideration, she said.

“It also has a lot to do with some of the trust issues we (WDFW) have,” she said. “We can’t hold onto our sciences as the only thing. It’s information that we need, and science is part of that.”

That kind of local knowledge is partially what prompted WDFW to review its cougar management policies a year earlier than originally planned. In December, the WDFW commission at a meeting in Spokane heard from dozens of people from Northeast Washington raising concerns about increased cougar sightings.

“It is anecdotal to a degree. Because you haven’t set it up systematically,” she said of those types of concerns. “But it is information.”

Now, WDFW is reviewing its cougar rules, with some changes likely next year.

“What we’re trying to do is get as much information as we can,” Thorburn said. “And assess that information.”

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