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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Public comment on Washington’s spring bear hunting seasons coming to a close

A black bear in Yellowstone National Park as seen in May 2014.  (NPS/Neal Herbert)

A chance to comment on proposed changes to Washington’s spring bear hunting season will close Oct. 21.

After that, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission will review a WDFW staff report and hear public testimony on the proposed hunting season at its Oct. 22 and 23 commission meeting before voting on whether to reapprove a hunting season that has occurred since 2002.

The season has been criticized by some for being immoral, as bears tend to be lethargic and underfed when they emerge from their winter dens.

Others have raised concerns about cubs being orphaned, although research out of Canada indicates this rarely happens.

“Spring bear seasons are very controversial,” said Marie Neumiller, the executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.

“The biggest fear around spring bear season is the orphaning of cubs, that’s a very emotional argument. Even as a hunter, my worse fear would be to take a sow. Especially in a spring season.”

Because bears are moving more slowly in the spring, Neumiller said it’s easier to identify whether a sow has cubs or not. The council supports the bear season, although some of the Spokane-based organization’s members would prefer to see an over-the-counter tag instead of a permit system.

“I personally like the permit because it gives them more control over population numbers,” she said. “It’s a more fine-tuned tool.”

The hunt has long been used to reduce bear numbers in “areas where WDFW have observed ongoing human-bear conflicts, low fall harvest results, commercial timber damage, or concerns for ungulate species recruitment,” according to an agency statement.

In the spring, black bears will eat just about anything, including fawns too young to flee. Per proposed rule for the 2022 spring season, WDFW would provide roughly 664 spring bear permits. WDFW staff estimate hunters would kill 145 black bears.

The hunt remains controversial. In recent weeks, the Humane Society of the United States has urged its members and supporters to oppose the continuation of the spring bear hunt, noting the concerns about orphaned cubs and calling the hunt “exceptionally cruel.”

“Allowing hunters to kill black bears who have just recently emerged from their winter hibernation is a practice that most Washingtonians find abhorrent,” Dan Paul, Washington state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a news release. “These bears are desperately hungry, many are mothers with newborn cubs, and now is the time for our Fish & Wildlife Commission to eliminate this hunt for good.”

In his statement. Paul references a 2019 study finding the majority of people in Western states oppose spring bear hunts. Washington is one of eight Western states to have a spring bear season and has had the special-permit hunt since 2002. Tags peaked at 814 in 2017 and since have declined, according to the Northwest Sportsman Magazine.

In 2020, a lawsuit was filed attempting to block the 2021 season alleging that WDFW didn’t “properly notify the public that it was considering approval of the spring bear hunt.” In April, a judge denied the petition to block the 2021 season, although commissioners said they would “continue discussion of the broader topic in the future.”

A new Washington nonprofit aimed at reforming the fish and wildlife department – Washington’s Wildlife First – is asking WDFW to postpone the commission hearing and vote.

“As an organization, we are asking the commissioners to delay the hearing and the vote until the department can provide adequate information about the rationale for holding this hunt,” said David Linn, the interim executive director. “The department is asking people to comment on the proposal without providing them with any information.”