Washington Wildlife Commission Strikes Down Recreational Spring Bear Hunt


A controversial hunt was struck down Friday, ending a yearlong back-and-forth.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 to "not approve recreational hunting of black bears in the spring."

Commissioners voting "yes" were Tim Ragen, Lorna Smith, John Lehmkuhl, Barbara Baker and Melanie Rowland.

Kim Thorburn, James Anderson, Donald McIsaac and Molly Linville cast "no" votes.

The decision ends a public and sometimes acrimonious debate. Opponents argue the spring hunt is cruel considering that bears are weaker in the spring after emerging from winter hibernation. Meanwhile proponents of the hunt say it is a useful tool for controlling bear numbers and has a long tradition.

In 2021, WDFW staff recommended the hunt continue. However, what was once a routine yearly decision became controversial as some commissioners questioned the science and need of the hunt. The 2022 spring black bear hunting season was suspended when the commission failed to approve permit levels on a 4-4 vote in 2021. The commission was short one member at the time.

The permit-only hunt has occurred in one form or another since 1999 and was used to address timber damage, human-bear conflicts and concerns about fawn deer and elk survival, according to agency biologists briefing the commission in 2021. In the spring, black bears will eat just about anything, including fawns too young to flee.

The hunt received national attention when the Humane Society of the United States urged its members and supporters to oppose the continuation of the spring bear hunt, noting the concerns about orphaned cubs and calling the hunt "exceptionally cruel." WDFW received thousands of comments.

Last January, the commission, which was down to seven members following the resignation of spring bear hunt opponent Fred Koontz, voted to reconsider the hunt. That required restarting a months long rule-making process.

During the process, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed three new people to the commission — Melanie Rowland, of Twisp; John Lehmkuhl, of Wenatchee; and Tim Ragen, of Anacortes. The new commissioners, along with Barbara Baker, of Thurston County, and Lorna Smith, of Jefferson County, continued to question the department's black bear population data.

Earlier this year the commission canceled the 2022 hunt; however, that decision only applied to 2022.

Friday's decision does allow for WDFW staff to come back and request a management hunt aimed at specific issues.

Tim Ragen, who made the initial motion Friday, said there was "lots of room for improvement" in WDFW's black bear science and the former executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission also said he personally found the hunt unethical.

"I think we have gotten into so many mistakes in our country assuming we know what's going on with wildlife populations and then watching them crash," he said Friday.

On the other side of the issue, Kim Thorburn of Spokane, said she voted against the motion partly because she believes hunting is "often important to wildlife conservation."

Meanwhile in national bear news on Tuesday, New Jersey's governor reinstated bear hunting after an increase in sightings and conflicts. The state's last bear hunt was in 2020 after Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat allowed the state's bear management plan to expire, one of the planks of his election campaign.