Sun., March 13, 2022
By Samantha Bruegger
“Mama Bear” is a popular slogan on sweatshirts and bumper stickers, because many mothers, like me, identify with the ferocity with which a “Mama Bear” will protect her cubs.
Management of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cannot relate; it denigrates empathy for animals, or concern for their ethical treatment, as “emotional” and “unscientific.” To department management, our wildlife exists only to be “harvested,” whenever and however hunters choose.
This disregard for ethical mores explains the department’s recommendation that the Fish and Wildlife Commission reverse the decision it made last fall, and approve a permanent spring hunting season to allow hunters to target bears when they are weak, slow and easy to kill. Experts agree spring bear hunts inevitably kill nursing mothers and leave orphaned cubs to die, which is one reason they are supported by only 15% of the population in Western states.
In past years, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has recognized ethical concerns with spring hunts, but claimed they were necessary to prevent timber damage, boost prey populations and reduce human conflict. But management has now acknowledged that it cannot support these assertions and its science does not show any “need” for a spring bear hunt.
But instead of reconsidering the hunt, the department shifted seamlessly to defending it as an important “recreational opportunity,” because a fraction of a percentage of Washingtonians (including Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind) have fun killing bears in spring. For management, any ethical concerns are vanquished by the loud demands of this tiny group.
To placate opponents, the latest version of the spring bear hunt rule includes a toothless provision making it illegal to kill cubs or sows with cubs. This is an empty gesture. As Game Division Manager Anis Aoude admits, it is extremely difficult for hunters to identify the sex of a bear, or determine whether a sow has cubs stashed up a nearby tree. In the past, the department opposed such a ban as unenforceable.
Management has also declared that hunters killed only one nursing mother during the 2021 spring hunt, a shaky claim given the significant issues with the department’s first attempt to determine lactation status from bear hides, which were sometimes folded, frozen and days old. This figure is not only improbable, but a poor basis to predict future results. Based on population data, biologists estimate roughly 16 of the 45 sows killed during spring 2021 were likely to have been nursing cubs, and they would have left behind an estimated 36 orphans.
This use of fuzzy science is not an isolated event. Department biologists are finishing a multiyear project to determine bear densities, which has revealed that the state bear population is significantly lower than previously thought. The Department of Fish and Wildlife ignored this science in 2019, when it approved a longer summer/fall bear hunting season with increased “bag limits” – a change that resulted in a 50% increase in the number of reported kills. The department admits it is “unclear” how these changes affected the bear population. But that has not stopped management from recommending a permanent spring hunt, which will target bears without considering local bear density, accounting for damage from recent wildfires, or using best available science to gauge harm to local populations.
I wish this was a surprise. But department employees have long complained about management’s selective use of facts and science. Last year’s state audit reiterated these concerns, quoting one employee saying: “Senior staff feel they get to decide what information is important to incorporate. It blows my mind that it’s your job to provide this information, but they don’t use it, they throw it away. And that is pervasive.”
I admit I have an “emotional” reaction to the killing of “Mama Bears” and the orphaning of their cubs. I don’t apologize for that. The ability to empathize with others, including other species, is part of our humanity. But I’m more concerned about the ecological havoc being wrecked by the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s unscientific war on carnivores. As the department warns in its Game Management Plan, bear populations are “especially sensitive to over-exploitation,” and by the time we detect a decline, it could take up to 15 years for them to recover.
The commission votes on the new spring bear hunt proposal on Saturday. Will it hold the brave stance it took last fall and end the unscientific and unethical spring hunt? Or will it return to rubber-stamping of the department’s recommendations? I certainly hope the former will be true, so we can stop spring bear hunting in Washington once and for all.
Samantha Bruegger, of Brewster, Washington, is the executive director of Washington Wildlife First.