Washington’s black bears — big, familiar, ambulatory and omnivorous — are at a crossroads. They care nothing for the quandary they have stirred, wishing only for survival on a changing planet. Yet, they have become unwitting figureheads in a titanic struggle for the heart and soul of Washington’s future wildlife policy.
The outcome of that struggle resides in the hands of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the appointed, policymaking Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). But really, it is squarely in the hands of all of us who care.
For some 80 years, the state has generally allowed two yearly black bear hunting seasons — spring and fall — but so-called “Spring Bear” is beset with thorny ethical questions and shifting rationale. Out of this, a seminal question has emerged: Why would we let bears, including many sows with boisterous cubs in tow, emerge from hibernation into the spring season of renewal only to face fear and lurking death?
Should it be because, as FWC Commissioner Donald McIsaac of Clark County has said, “it’s traditional?” McIsaac has a point. Traditions die hard.
But “it’s traditional” is not a scientific defense for placing lactating sow bears at risk from hunters who must make dubious split-second field decisions in order to avoid sentencing young bear cubs to starvation. In fact, WDFW prefers to rely on often-shaky census data to claim that spring hunts are not throwing bears into local declines, as if non-decline should be a scientific offset for orphaned cubs.
What, then, is the best scientific defense? WDFW seems adrift. Most previous hunts have been planned as “management” hunts, offering permits for hunters to non-selectively kill bears to reduce agricultural damage and lessen human-bear conflicts. But actual reductions were difficult to document. This year’s proposal was “recreational,” with little fallback to damage control.
Thus, on March 19, the FWC finally voted down the spring bear hunt, pending a multifaceted review of relevant science and ethics. A titanic struggle it has been! Three votes in five months, two of them reversing earlier votes, all taken while the commissioners reeled under a barrage of 26,000 public comments.
We cannot let war defeat even a tenuous peace. No struggle, titanic or otherwise, should be allowed to overshadow needed progress on wildlife conservation policy. Bears have become a convenient proxy for a broader debate that regrettably teeters on the razor’s edge of America’s cultural divide.
Recently appointed Commissioner Tim Ragen signaled a potential shift in policy when he offered that wildlife ecologists see female bears as having higher value to the bear population than males because they rear the young. By extension, a female bear with cubs is at her very highest value. Accordingly, WDFW should not be putting the most valuable wildlife at risk.
Here in the Evergreen State, we are blessed with a stunning array of wildlife. Black bears are but a slice. Wolves, whales, elusive cougars, urban squirrels and endangered wolverines — all are part of a public trust belonging to every one of us, and which we must protect and manage.
Good things have happened. Let’s continue to cheer for wildlife. Let’s continue to demand responsibility, accountability, transparency and a fair shake for bears at WDFW. Let’s make this our legacy.