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Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission unlikely to approve spring 2023 black bear hunt or increase in cougar bag limit

July 1, 2022 Updated Fri., July 1, 2022 at 5:26 p.m.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage.  (WDFW)
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage. (WDFW)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – The 2023 spring black bear hunting season in Washington may be axed even before a formal proposal is made by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission held lengthy discussions on predators last week and showed they may be unlikely to approve a proposal to allow hunters to kill up to two mountain lions in the Blue Mountains to aid struggling elk herds there. But the commission decided not to require ranchers and the department to meet a higher bar before wolves can be killed for preying on livestock.

Commissioners will decide July 15 if they will hold off on considering permit levels for the 2023 spring black bear season, or any year, until they rewrite the state’s policy on the controversial hunt. Such efforts usually take many months if not longer. If passed, the amendment is likely to preclude any consideration of a limited bear hunt next spring, unless the commission acts with abnormal speed to revise its current spring black bear policy.

That is exactly what commissioners Lorna Smith and Melanie Rowland, both of whom oppose spring bear hunting, proposed. Both said they were prepared to move forward with a policy change.

“I mean, how long have we been talking about spring bear hunting? What’s going to be new about the policy that is different than any individual year? I don’t get it,” said Rowland, of Twisp.

Commission chairperson Barbara Baker, who voted against the 2022 spring bear hunting season, said the public needs to be given a chance to comment before the body considers a broader policy change. But it was her proposal to hold a vote next month that, if approved, would require the black bear policy to be revised before the commission votes on individual hunts.

Kelly Susewind, director of the agency, gave his approval to that course of action, saying he doesn’t want to waste staff time on a potentially moot point.

“If you are going to kill it, kill it,” he said of the spring season. “Don’t put us through a whole bunch of work.”

The current policy allows for a limited spring bear season in which hunters must win a drawing to participate. The agency proposed a 650-permit hunt for last spring and estimated fewer than 150 bears would be killed if it were approved. The proposal became a flash point with those opposed, who said it is unethical to hunt bears in the spring when they have just emerged from hibernation and at a time when sows with cubs might be killed. Those in favor said it is a limited hunt, with a small but enthusiastic following, and that the black bear population is healthy enough to withstand the modest harvest.

The proposed season failed to pass last fall on a tie vote. It was reconsidered in April and failed on a 5-4 vote with all of Gov. Jay Inslee’s newest appointments to the commission voting against the season.

It appears the 5-4 vote margin may hold, based on dialogue at the meeting. Some like Timothy Ragen continued to insist the department needs to collect much more biological data on the spring black bear populations in various parts of the state before he is comfortable allowing a hunt. Kim Thorburn, of Spokane, and Molly Linville, of Ritzville, said they accepted the department’s data that says the state’s black bear population is stable and can withstand hunting.

“How I feel about hunting a particular species is my personal value, but we do have communities that value the opportunity to hunt and that is something our mission tells us to do,” Thorburn said. “So my idea of my responsibility is to follow the mission and if that opportunity can be provided, even if it’s a minority community, a small group of people, it is my responsibility to honor that value.”

Commissioners seemed to divide on similar fault lines last week as they debated how to manage mountain lions in the Blue Mountains. In a study conducted last summer, the department documented that mountain predation on elk calves is limiting the elk herd in the Blues. It is proposing raising the individual bag limit on cougars from one per year to two.

Game Division Manager Anis Aoude said the bag limit bump is designed to reduce mountain lion density and predation on elk, and data shows calf survival is too low for the elk population that is far below the agency’s objective to remain stable.

But some commissioners were unwilling to accept that cougar predation is to blame for the depressed state of the herd or that there is even a problem with elk.

Rowland asked why anything should be done and said it was strange to kill cougars just so hunters could kill more elk.

“Yes, cougars prey on elk calves, they would be pretty stupid if they didn’t, and I don’t think cougars are stupid,” Rowland said. “So that’s a fact. But is it a problem? I don’t see the problem.”

Susewind stepped in to answer Rowland, saying the Blue Mountain elk herd is at or near an all-time low and, at current rate of calf survival, it will be unable to even stay at that low level.

“That to me is a problem – to have an all-time low, or near all-time low, population that can’t replace itself.”

Ragen said commissioners appear to be approaching the issue from two established viewpoints. He suggested a pause to seek more precise science on the entire ecosystem

.

“I see this as an opportunity to try to step back on how this all can function together so, when we make a decision about what might have to be done to promote stability, we are really well informed on the big picture,” Ragen said.

Following some emotional testimony from commission members, the body voted not to require the department to confirm ranchers have deployed adequate measures designed to prevent wolf attacks on livestock before wolves can be killed.

Another proposal would direct the department to engage with ranchers to create voluntary, chronic wolf-livestock depreciation plans. The majority said the number of wolves being killed for preying on livestock and the number of livestock being killed by wolves is much reduced from 2020, when Inslee directed the department to write new rules governing how to manage wolves and livestock.

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