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Washington wildlife commission increases cougar bag limit in Blues; spring black bear hunt still on hold

July 16, 2022 Updated Sat., July 16, 2022 at 4:02 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 – Hunters in Washington will have the opportunity to take a second mountain lion in a portion of the Blue Mountains but are likely to be denied a second straight spring black bear hunt.

In what is becoming a familiar 5-4 vote tally, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission chose Friday to put off consideration of individual spring black bear hunting seasons until it rewrites the policy regarding the limited but controversial hunt.

By the same margin, commissioners approved increasing the bag limits on cougars in the Blue Mountains from one per year to two – a move meant to decrease density of the predators and increase survival of elk calves. But this time, the makeup of the 5-4 majority was different. Commissioner John Lehmkuhl, of Wenatchee, sided with commissioners Kim Thorburn, Jim Anderson, Don McIsaac and Molly Linville to approve the measure. In previous predator hunting votes, including the one likely to scuttle consideration of the 2023 spring black bear season, Lehmkuhl has sided with commissioners Barbara Baker, Lorna Smith, Melanie Rowland and Tim Ragen, who have been skeptical of predator management and the related science collected by Fish and Wildlife biologists.

Lehmkuhl called it a tough decision and pointed out several issues he has with the proposal and that he believes habitat may be a limiting factor to the elk herd. But he said the cougar population appears resilient and able to withstand what is likely to be only a modest increase in harvest that may help increase elk calf survival.

“On the whole, I guess I would support the proposal with the clear understanding that there’ll be a very strong monitoring program,” he said.

According to an assessment written by department biologists, the Blue Mountain elk herd has been in decline for several years. Many animals died in the harsh winters of 2016-17 and 2018-19. Since then, calf survival has been poor. The population, estimated at 3,900 animals this spring, is 30% below the management objective of 5,500. That same survey turned up a ratio of 17 calves per 100 cows. Game Division manager Anis Aoude said a ration of about 25 calves per 100 cows is needed to maintain herd stability.

Last year, the agency placed tracking collars on 125 newborn elk calves. Only nine of them survived the year. Of those that died, 77 were killed by predators. Seventy percent of those killed by predators, or 54 calves, were taken down by cougars.

Some commissioners continued to dismiss science collected by the department, while others said they needed more information. Rowland questioned the need to remove cougars when some cow elk are killed each year in an effort to reduce crop damage, and said she believes habitat degradation may be the cause of declining elk numbers.

Aoude pushed back, saying elk are declining in core areas of the Blue Mountains but not in the areas where crop damage is occurring, and that habitat is not the problem.

But Smith and Ragen also questioned the agency’s science. Ragen said he needed much more information, including estimates of the cougar population and habitat health before approving the proposal. Smith said the entire discussion was being driven by the department’s elk herd objective of 5,500 animals, which she suggested is too high.

“If we weren’t using that as our target number, then we wouldn’t be viewing this as a herd in crisis,” she said.

This time, Anderson, who has previously said he didn’t think the increasing the bag limit is aggressive enough, responded.

“Population objective is not the issue. It’s the recruitment, or the failure of the recruitment,” he said, using a wildlife management term that means the survival of animals from newborns to adults. “We are seeing a continued decline in that herd that is driven by recruitment. So you can set the population number wherever you want, but as long as you have a recruitment problem, you’ve got a problem.”

Spring black bear hunt remains on hold

Commissioners also decided to finish rewriting the spring black bear hunting policy before voting on permit levels for the 2023 spring season. The commission has been discussing the hunt for more than two years, and opted not to hold one last spring.

Baker, chairperson of the commission, said the vote was not intended to determine if there would ever be another spring black bear hunt, but rather determine if the policy should be rewritten before decisions on individual hunts. Each year, the commission votes to approve permit levels for the season in which hunters must draw a permit to participate.

“This is just a process question,” she said.

She argued the commission’s previous lengthy and heated discussions of the spring hunt will be repeated until a new policy is set, and threatens to waste the time Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff members.

McIsaac noted that rewriting the policy is likely to be laborious and go well past the deadline to make a decision on a hunt for next spring, meaning one won’t be held.

“We’ve got a statutory mandate to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities when it does not impair the resource, but is sustainable,” he said. “The scientific experts on staff said the bear population is robust and healthy, and that the spring bear hunt is sustainable. Going to zero is the opposite of maximizing.”

Lehmkuhl said he could vote either way but ultimately favored delay, saying previous debates over the hunt have been centered in disagreements over interpretation of current policy as outlined in the agency’s game management plan. He said those need to be resolved.

“I think we’ll have the exact same sort of result that we had previously,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s a useful use of our time. The staff’s time, the public’s time. It creates a lot of conflict and negative energy.”

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