Washington Wildlife Managers Extend Public Comment Opportunity on Contentious Spring Black Bear Hunt

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Washington wildlife managers extended the public comment period for a contentious spring bear hunt, Friday.

Now, the public will have until Nov. 1 at 5 p.m. to submit written comments.

The permit-only hunt, which has occurred in one form or another since 1999, has been controversial with some groups and individuals arguing it's unethical to target black bears when they are weaker after a winter of hibernation. Agency biologists briefed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commission during Friday's commission meeting.

The spring hunt, said Stephanie Simek, the carnivore section manager for WDFW, is used to address timber damage, human-bear conflicts and concerns about fawn deer and elk survival. Simek said in an interview earlier in the week that Washington's bear population is robust.

"Right now, in Washington, we have a fairly robust and stable population statewide," she said. "We are working on improving our population monitoring process. But at this point we don't have any concerns."

WDFW biologists use hunter-harvest reports to estimate the black bear population. Starting in 2021 biologist collected tooth samples from harvested bears as well. Simek presented those findings to the commission Friday.

In 2021, hunters killed 124 black bears, 45 of which were female. One of those females was lactating, indicating that she had cubs.

Orphaning cubs is another concern for those opposed to the spring hunt. It is not illegal to kill a female bear with cubs in Washington.

"The spring bear hunt in particular, is just a very cruel hunt," said Dan Paul, Washington state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's a very brutal hunt because of the high likelihood of collateral damage. In Washington there is nothing preventing hunters from killing lactating females."

In the spring, black bears will eat just about anything, including fawns too young to flee. Per the proposed rule for the 2022 spring season, WDFW would provide roughly 664 spring bear permits. WDFW staff estimate hunters would kill 145 black bears.

In 2020, a lawsuit was filed attempting to block the 2021 season alleging that WDFW didn't "properly notify the public that it was considering approval of the spring bear hunt." In April, a judge denied the petition to block the 2021 season, although commissioners said they would "continue discussion of the broader topic in the future."

Several commissioners questioned Simek, focusing particularly on WDFW's black bear population and density estimates. Commissioner Lorna Smith also questioned how timber damage was reported.

Simek and other agency staff emphasized that they are working on improving their monitoring and survey work.

"When you're dealing with large carnivores it bring both sides of the fence all together," Simek said, adding later "We are managing the population for everyone. We are trying to preserve and perpetuate these populations."

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