In a sharply-divided decision, the Washington Fish and Game Commission officially ended the state’s long-running spring black bear season. The vote comes one year after commission members imposed a controversial pause on spring bear hunting in Washington despite guidance from Washington Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) biologists who said that the hunt should move forward.
The vote to end “recreational hunting of black bears in the spring” followed hours of debate and deliberation by the nine-member commission during a regular meeting in Olympia on Friday, November 18. Ultimately, five members voted to end the hunt, while the remaining four members opposed the motion.
Local Conservation Groups Fought the Decision
Hunting-focused conservation organizations in the state decried the vote as an attack on hunting rights and science-based wildlife management. Marie Nuemiller is the Executive Director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, a Spokane-based conservation group that’s been fighting on behalf of bear hunters. She said there was little opportunity for public input in the lead-up to the recent decision.
“It feels like [the commission] skirted the rules in order to push forward their emotion-based opinions instead of listening to their own department scientists,” Neumiller told Field & Stream. “Whether you’re for spring bear hunting or not, I think the way that they went about closing this season is concerning because that could very easily happen for any other hunting activity.”
Opponents of spring bear hunting say that the practice is unethical because it could leave vulnerable cubs orphaned. But hunters are urged not to shoot sows with cubs and rarely do, according to WDFW harvest data. Last spring, hunters supported a WDFW rule change that would have outlawed the harvest of sows with cubs for both the spring and fall seasons, but the commission voted it down.
WDFW biologists have said repeatedly that the spring bear hunt in Washington state should continue—pointing to population data that shows robust bear numbers in the state. But certain members of the commission have challenged and disregarded the department’s population statistics at every turn.
Neumiller said the commission’s latest decision is part of a broader strategy that would ultimately separate hunting from game management policy in Washington. “They’re working to shift fish and game management from a consumptive-based model to what they call a compassion-based model,” she said. “Recreational hunting is a wildlife management tool. They’re trying to pull the two apart, but they’re really one and the same.”
Within the language of its ban on spring bear hunting, the commission left open the possibility for what it calls “management hunts” in instances of livestock or timber depredation. But Neumiller says those opportunities would be few and far between—if they’re allowed at all. Any management hunts would likely require a “master hunter” certification, which most licensed hunters don’t have.
“We’ve had commissioners say that it is immoral to kill any predator under any circumstances,” she said. “When you take that stance, how can you protect biodiversity? What about our Blue Mountain elk herd that’s being decimated by predators? I hope that the governor will hear our concerns and appoint people [to the commission] who will be willing to craft policies the right way, to follow the law, and to actually listen to the science at hand.”