Spring Bear is only the Beginning

Stemming from the appointment of three new commissioners in recent weeks, the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted on March 19 against the Washington spring black bear hunt in a 5-4 decision. The spring bear hunt became an early national flashpoint of anti-hunters opposing fair chase hunting opportunities across the West in 2021. Commissioner justifications for their votes indicate that opportunity and management principles are imperiled under the current commission leadership.

The Washington Chapter extends its most sincere gratitude to the department staff, the hunting advocates who submitted testimony, and the commissioners who voted in favor of spring bear hunt.

An initial tie vote in November has shuttered the season, until a formal petition filed by Washington BHA and the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council was adopted by the commission which offered a slim chance to regain the hunt which has persisted for over 38 years. Conservationists, local clubs and national organizations rallied to speak up in support of the season over recent months, submitting tens of thousands of comments, live testimony and media engagement about the issue. In the end, however, the loss of the season resulted from an inept appointment process, vicious anti-hunting narratives, and a commission that seems unfamiliar with their guidance, authority and even the wildlife they are tasked to manage.

The Appointment Process:

The three most recent appointments come as a result of a commission that had seen their ranks drop from the full 9 seats down to 7 over the past 18 months. For months, conservation groups had been trying to engage with the Governor’s office to ensure that candidates who understand and respect their perspectives would be appointed but received little response and a lack of good faith engagement. Those same hunting and fishing organizations were caught completely off-guard by the sudden appointment of three new commissioners in January, especially as the Governor’s office seemed to do so in violation of RCW 77.04.040. This state law outlines the qualifications and standards for commission appointments, charging the governor to maintain a balanced perspective and engage with stakeholders including hunters and sportfishers for recommendations. Not a single hunting or fishing organization in contact with Washington BHA had been involved in advancing or endorsing the appointed commissioners.

The New Commissioners:

These newly appointed commissioners represented a key faction in the spring bear season, as any one of them could have been a swing vote in favor of advancing the opportunity. Instead, all three of these commissioners have engaged in statements and behavior during commission meetings that is not only alarming to hunters, but seems to be inadequate for the role of good governance as it relates to wildlife. One Commissioner admitted to not being familiar with Washington’s hunting seasons, while another positioned hunters as a fundamentally separate and distinct stakeholder group from conservationists; an inflammatory insult for all hunters and anglers that invest immeasurably in healthy and sustainable ecosystems. The third commissioner leaned heavily into a personal history as a lifelong hunter, but has failed to reach out to any hunting group since his appointment in regards to this issue of which they seemed woefully uninformed.

Inaccurate Narratives:

Throughout the public comment process, anti-hunters routinely engaged in malicious and inaccurate statements. Accusations of hunters seeking trophies even as the state has wanton waste laws for bears. Mistakenly stating the bears are easily hunted due to lethargy from hibernation, even as hunting season occurs well after den emergence. Claiming hunters orphan bear cubs even as hunters advocated for laws preventing the taking of sows with cubs. One commissioner even referred to the hunt as “unusual suffering” during a public meeting to explain their vote, and others clung to emotional appeals from the public input as rationale. At no time, did the commission use their authority to set the record straight on these issues, instead some commissioners parroted these same lies and gave credibility to baseless libel and slander against the hunting community, inflaming a wedge issue where one need not exist with clear leadership and communication.

Commission Guidance:

Throughout the spring bear issue, the commission has repeatedly engaged in actions and behaviors that are contrary to both their mandate and guiding documents. Some commissioners who voted against the hunt said it was because they had unanswered questions for a process that has dragged on for over 6 months and yielded hundreds of pages of scientific data to support the season. Those same commissioners failed to use the official request process to have their questions answered, known as a blue sheet request. Other commissioners invoked the parts of the game management plan as a reason for their no vote, even as they willingly overlooked significant sections of the document that endorsed, authorized and in some cases even encouraged the opportunity to persist. Perhaps most troubling of all, the commissioners who voted against the spring hunt appear to have violated two core documents: their complete mandate as listed in RCW 77.04.013 and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission Rules of Procedure. These documents speak not only their legal responsibility to maximize recreational opportunity, but also to their ability to serve on the commission and engage with vested stakeholders appropriately in decision-making.

What Comes Next?:

In honesty, the possibility of retaining a spring bear season in Washington was always going to be slim. However, the statements, actions and justifications from the commission members opposed to the hunt were incredibly alarming. They undermined the value and expertise of department staff and recommendations while promoting ideas that conflict with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and their entrusted authority. Antagonistic language and opinions were leveled against the dedicated sportsmen and women of this state, even as the newly elected chair called for unity and fair representation. Hunters and anglers in Washington should be very concerned about the foundations laid in the recent spring bear meetings as they will likely continue to be used against opportunity in WDFW policy making. With the Game Management Plan review on the horizon, now is the time to keep up the pressure on the commission to make sure they are held accountable, not just to their stakeholders but to the core tenets of their roles and responsibilities.

The Washington Chapter of BHA was an early advocate for hunters as it related to the spring bear season, and is going to continue engaging the commission as a strategic priority in 2022 in defense of sound policy and our hunting heritage. Now is the time for all passionate sportsmen and sportswomen to stay informed and advocate around these issues. It’s not hyperbole to assert that Washington’s hunters may be dealing with an existential threat to opportunity through this commission.

About Dan Wilson

Washington State Chapter Secretary. Muzzleloaders, shotguns and fly rods