Comment: Full commission needed for best wildlife management

To manage a vital resource, a commission vacancy must be filled and its testimony rules changed.

By Bryce Levin / For The Herald

On Nov. 19, the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted on proposed changes to the structure of the limited entry, 2022 spring bear hunt. While public notice stated the vote was regarding language and opportunity updates, it quickly became apparent that the issue of bear hunting in Washington was at stake. The vote ended in a 4-4 tie, shutting down the 2022 spring bear hunt.

The commission consists of nine governor-appointed members, mandated to establish policies to preserve and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and harvest opportunities. It works closely with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), receives recommendations from WDFW biologists and holds meetings allowing public input to set regulated hunting seasons and commercial and recreational fishing seasons.

In January of 2021, two new commission members were appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to fill two of the three seats vacated by commissioners’ whose terms had expired in December 2020. Twelves month later, the third seat, an Eastern Washington seat, has been left unappointed, leaving an eight-member commission at the time of the vote.

At the Oct. 22 meeting, two newly appointed commissioners, Lorna Smith and Fred Koontz, went on the offensive peppering WDFW staff with a long list of questioning, targeting the accuracy of department data and questioning the ethics of the bear hunt. In response, WDFW biologists provided a 100-page response citing their methodology for obtaining data, unit by unit harvest, population estimates, ungulate predation, and den emergence and harvest timing to name a few.

Biologists viewed the spring season as a tool to reduce human-bear conflicts, prevent timber damage and mitigate predation on new-born elk calves and deer fawns. The biologists estimated that there are between 18,000 and 21,000 adult black bears statewide, a robust, stable, and growing population.

Data presented showed that the 10-year harvest rates for the spring and fall hunt average between 8.22 percent and 9.59 percent of the population, falling within or below the objective of 9 percent to 11 percent harvest rate annually for a sustainable population. A 2020 predation study in the Blue Mountains of Southeast Washington collared 125 elk calves; 77 calves were lost to predators with 16 percent to 20 percent attributed to black bears. This same herd of elk has seen a major decrease in population over the past seven years and is one of the areas where a significant number of spring bear tags are allocated, with the goal of reducing predation and giving this herd some much needed relief.

Historically, public comment at commission meetings has been limited to in-person comments, but in response to covid, WDFW now allows public comment via Zoom, opening public comment to citizens nationwide. With this new tool on the table for anti-hunting individuals and organizations, the FWC has been inundated with coordinated comments from local and national anti-hunting organizations.

These groups cite fallacious emotional arguments opposing hunting as unethical and cruel and coin terms like “trophy hunting” to paint pictures of wasteful and unnecessary killing of wildlife. In addition to the tools the hunt provides, and revenue generated, state law requires that all edible portions of harvested game be consumed. This playbook has been adopted and is being executed in California, Colorado, and Arizona in an attempt to reduce or eliminate cougar, bear, and bobcat hunting. This is a coordinated attack on the North American model of wildlife conservation, a management model that has recovered depleted wildlife populations like grizzly bears, gray wolves and bald eagles while sustaining wildlife populations through science-based, objective management.

Where does the funding come from? During the 2019-21 biennium, $97.4 million of revenue was generated from hunters and anglers through license sales and applications statewide. This revenue — in addition to funding received through the Dingell-Johnson act, a 10 percent tax on fishing tackle, and the Pittman-Robertson act, a 11 percent tax on firearms and ammunition — generates 30 percent of WDFW’s annual budget.

Since the inception of these acts, more than $22.9 billion have been collected and allocated to states, including nearly $1 billion in 2020.

Hunting isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But turning a blind eye to the beneficial role hunting plays in wildlife management and funding is lose-lose for wildlife and people who value balanced, diverse ecosystems and wildlife. We must manage wildlife using the best available science and demand that the governor appoint individuals to the Fish and Wildlife Commission who are believers in the North American model of wildlife conservation.

You can learn more about how we can hold our commission and governor accountable at backcountryhunters.org.

Bryce Levin is the conservation and policy leader for the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Washington Chapter. He lives in Lake Stevens.

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