Washington Wildlife Commission Raises Cougar Bag Limit in Blues; Spring black bear hunt still pending

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Washington hunters will have the opportunity to take a second mountain lion in part of the Blue Mountains, but will likely be denied a second straight black bear hunt in the spring.

In what’s becoming a familiar 5-4 vote tally, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has opted to delay reviewing black bear hunting seasons until the spring until it rewrites hunting policy. limited but controversial.

In the same margin, commissioners approved raising cougar bag limits in the Blue Mountains from one per year to two — a move intended to reduce predator density and increase elk calf survival. But this time, the composition of the 5-4 majority was different. Commissioner John Lehmkuhl of Wenatchee sided with commissioners Kim Thorburn, Jim Anderson, Don McIsaac and Molly Linville in approving the measure. In previous votes on predator hunting, including one likely to scuttle the review of the 2023 spring black bear season, Lehmkuhl sided with commissioners Barbara Baker, Lorna Smith, Melanie Rowland and Tim Ragen. , who have been skeptical of predator management and related science collected. by fish and wildlife biologists.

Lehmkuhl called the decision difficult and pointed out several issues he has with the proposal and that he thinks habitat may be a limiting factor for the elk herd. But he said the cougar population appears resilient and able to withstand what will likely only be a modest increase in harvest that could help boost elk calf survival.

“Overall, I guess I would support the proposal knowing clearly that there will be a very robust monitoring program,” he said.

According to an assessment written by department biologists, the Blue Mountain elk herd has been in decline for several years. Many animals died during the harsh winters of 2016-17 and 2018-19. Since then, calf survival has been poor. The population, estimated at 3,900 animals this spring, is 30% below the management objective of 5,500. This same survey revealed a ratio of 17 calves per 100 cows. Game division manager Anis Aoude said a ration of around 25 calves per 100 cows is needed to maintain herd stability.

Last year, the agency placed tracking collars on 125 newborn elk calves. Only 9 of them survived the year. Of those who died, 77 were killed by predators. Seventy percent of those killed by predators, or 54 calves, were shot by cougars.

Some commissioners continued to reject the scientific data collected by the department, while others said they needed more information. Rowland questioned the need to cull cougars when some elk are killed each year in an effort to reduce crop damage, and said she believes habitat degradation may be the cause of the decline in the number of elk.

Aoude pushed back, saying elk are declining in central areas of the Blue Mountains, but not in areas where crops are damaged, and habitat isn’t the problem.

But Smith and Ragen also questioned the agency’s science. Ragen said he needed a lot more information, including cougar population estimates and habitat health before approving the proposal. Smith said the whole discussion was driven by the ministry’s elk herd goal of 5,500 animals, which she says is too high.

“If we weren’t using that as a goal, we wouldn’t be looking at this as a herd in crisis,” she said.

This time, Anderson, who previously said he didn’t think increasing the bag limit was aggressive enough, responded.

“The population goal is not the problem. It’s recruitment, or failure to recruit,” he said, using a common term in wildlife management that means the survival of animals, from hatchlings to adults. “We are seeing a continued decline in this herd which is driven by recruitment. So you can set the number of population wherever you want, but as long as you have a recruitment problem, you have a problem.

The spring black bear hunt remains suspended

The commissioners also decided to complete the rewrite of the spring black bear hunting policy before voting on license levels for the 2023 spring season. The commission has been discussing the hunt for more than two years and has chosen not to not organize one last spring.

Baker, chairman of the commission, said Friday’s vote was not about whether there would ever be another black bear hunt in the spring, but rather whether the policy should be rewritten. before decisions on individual hunts. Each year, the commission votes to approve license levels for the season in which hunters must draw a license to participate.

“It’s just a matter of process,” she said.

She argued that the commission’s long and heated discussions on the spring hunt would be repeated until a new policy is set out that threatens to waste the time of Department of Fisheries and Wildlife staff. Washington wildlife.

McIsaac noted that the policy rewrite is likely to be laborious and well past the deadline to make a decision on a hunt next spring, which means it will not take place.

“We have a legal mandate to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities where it does not harm the resource, but it is sustainable,” he said. “Staff science experts said the bear population is robust and healthy and that the spring bear hunt is sustainable. Going to zero is the opposite of maximizing.

Lehmkuhl said he could vote either way, but ultimately favored the delay, saying previous hunting debates had centered on disagreements over the interpretation of current policy as outlined in the plan. of the agency’s game management. He said these need to be resolved.

“I think we will have exactly the same kind of result as we had before. And I don’t think that’s a useful use of our time. Staff time, public time. This creates a lot of conflict and negative energy.

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