LEWISTON – A divided Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to take another look at the state’s scuttled spring bear hunting season.
The decision does not guarantee that a spring bear season will be held this year. Instead the commission, in a 4-3 vote, opted to begin a rule-making process that could lead to a vote in March to authorize a season that would likely start in early May, about two weeks later than normal.
The black bear hunting season was killed when the commission deadlocked in a 4-4 vote last November. Soon after that contentious meeting, Commissioner Fred Koontz resigned, leaving the nine-member commission short two members.
On Friday, the commission addressed six separate petitions from hunters and hunting groups asking it to reconsider its action last fall.
It dismissed five on technical grounds but agreed to take up the sixth.
Commissioners McIsaac, of Vancouver; Jim Anderson, of Buckley; Molly Linville, of Reardan; and Kim Thorburn, of Spokane; voted in favor of restarting rule-making that could lead to a season.
Commissioners Barbara Baker, of Thurston County; Lorna Smith, of Jefferson County; and commission chairman Larry Carpenter, of Skagit County; voted to keep the season closed.
Baker argued the commission had promised Washington residents opposed to the hunt that it would thoroughly review both the science and ethics behind spring bear hunting and not holding a season this year would allow it to do so.
She also said voting to reinitiate rule-making would open the door to criticism and give ammunition to efforts seeking to reform the structure of the commission and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Multiple bills introduced in the state legislature would revamp the commission and the department it oversees.
“This is not an anti-hunting commission and our actions today will be fodder for the discussions that are going to happen in the legislature,” she said
Only a minority of Washington residents hunt and some groups have targeted spring bear hunting as unethical because it is staged shortly after bears emerge from winter hibernation and it is possible for nursing mothers to be killed.
Agency biologists said last fall the 145 bears that could be killed in the permit-only hunt is sustainable.
Permit levels are sometimes adjusted upward to reduce predation on elk calves in places like the Blue Mountains where the elk herd is struggling or to reduce damage to recently planted trees.
Thorburn said the commission’s November vote killed this year’s spring season on a technicality.
By ending up tied on a vote that was intended only to set permit levels, the season was unable to move forward.
If the commission wants to examine whether spring bear hunting should be allowed at all, she said it should do so through the agency’s game management plan.
That plan authorizes spring bear hunting.
The commission, in a separate action, voted to do just that. It will also conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s spring bear hunting policy, a process that is expected to take several months.
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