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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington wildlife manager says black bear data requested by Fish and Wildlife commissioner doesn’t exist and isn’t needed; group to vote Saturday on spring hunt

On 5-4 vote, Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission rejects season that would have issued 644 permits  (Photo courtesy of WDFW)
On 5-4 vote, Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission rejects season that would have issued 644 permits (Photo courtesy of WDFW)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

A top Washington wildlife manager said the detailed level of biological data requested by one of the state’s new Fish and Wildlife commissioners doesn’t exist for many hunted species in the Evergreen State.

Nor is it needed, said Anis Aoude, game division manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It is a standard that is probably unnecessary for the species we manage,” he said. “If you look across the U.S. at hunted species, people are not using this type of data to manage the species because of their status and their reproductive rates.”

Last Friday, commissioner Tim Ragen said he would need an intense level of data on the state’s black bear population before he would be comfortable approving a spring hunting season. The commission will vote Saturday on a proposed 644-permit season that would start May 1 and could result in the harvest of fewer than 150 of the state’s 20,000 bears, according to agency estimates.

Ragen, of Skagit County, spent his career managing marine mammals under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act that largely forbids hunting or other “takings” of the animals, that include seals, sea otters, sea lions and whales. In some cases, such as with California and steller sea lions that prey on protected salmon and steelhead in the lower Columbia River, the protection act permits a limited number of animals to be killed under highly regulated conditions.

Ragen described the way federal officials track marine mammal populations through stock assessment reports and determine how many can be removed when warranted. He suggested he would like similar information on Washington’s various black bear populations. Among other measurements, Ragen said the state’s black bear population estimate is unreliable. He would like Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist to compile reports that describe the minimum black bear abundances within defined geographic areas, their spatial and temporal variability, population trends, growth rate estimates, tallies of nonhunting forms of human-caused mortality and serious injury — such as bears struck by cars or killed for bad behavior.

“Then we calculate from all of that information what’s called a potential biological removal level — how many animals can you remove from that population before it’s at risk of falling below what we call the optimum sustainable population level which is well defined in the literature,” he said. “None of this can we do with this bear population. We simply can’t do it.”

Aoude said his agency, and most state wildlife agencies, don’t have the budget or staff to produce those kinds of reports on most hunted species. A similar level of information exists for some animals, like elk that tend to winter in open country and can be easily counted through aerial surveys, and bighorn sheep that are also intensely followed and easily surveyed.

But for many other animals that inhabit thick cover — such as whitetail deer and Columbia blacktail deer, or those that are widely distributed, such as wild turkey, upland game birds, cottontail rabbits and others — the state relies largely on harvest data to estimate population strength and trends. Aoude said it is a common strategy across the country.

Biologists track how many hunters take to the field each year and their success rates.

“If effort remains the same but harvest increases, that tells you there are likely more, and if effort stays the same but harvest decreases, that tells you there are likely fewer.”

Ragen didn’t respond to emailed requests for an interview and it is unknown if he believes such data should be collected on all hunted species, or if it should be gathered for a subset of species based on other criteria, like opposition from non hunters. For example, the spring black bear season is opposed by many Washington residents who say it is unethical because it could lead cubs to be orphaned and that black bears are more vulnerable in the spring.

During last Friday’s meeting, commissioners said some of issues related to the debate over the spring black bear hunt could be settled in June when the state’s Game Management Plan is updated. For example, a new plan could in spellout how much biological data must be collected before hunting seasons are approved or if certain hunting opportunities, such as the limited spring black bear season, should exist at all.

Commissioner Melanie Rowland, of Twisp, said she agreed with Ragen and also suggested the commission follow the precautionary principle and pause the spring black bear season until more data can be collected. The principle urges caution when there is a lack of precise information or an indication of a problem.

“It appears to me that if we are going to use the precautionary principle, then we say we will take a pause, we will not hunt bears in 2022, in the spring of 2022. We will consider the entire question of a spring bear hunt when, No. 1, when we have some better scientific information and, No. 2, we consider the game management plan as a whole.”

Rowland didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Commissioner Kim Thorburn, of Spokane, said at last Friday’s meeting that the precautionary principle is fine for threatened or endangered species or those that have shown signs of decline, such as white sturgeon in the lower Columbia River.

“When we have information long term that we have healthy populations, especially in game species, the approach we take to that is adaptive management more than a precautionary principle,” she said. “It becomes precautionary if there is evidence there are problems.”

The decision on a spring black bear season is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Saturday. An agenda for the full meeting that starts at 8 a.m. today is available at bit.ly/3q8NUaU.

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