A state appellate court has ruled that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) can no longer issue permits to private hunters to use bait and hounds to kill black bears on timberlands.
The ruling on Oct. 27 was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, which argued that the permit program was illegal.
“This ruling is a big win for Washington’s black bears,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director and senior attorney at the Center. “Going against the will of Washington voters, the state let a small group of selected hunters shoot bears over bait and chase them with hounds. The court stopped that cruelty, and we’re celebrating.”
In 1996 and 2000, Washington voters approved Initiatives 655 and 713, respectively, which banned the killing of black bears using bait, dogs and traps. The initiatives contained limited exceptions for targeting animals that cause property damage. The Center’s lawsuit challenged the department’s program for not falling within these narrow exceptions.
After emerging from hibernation in the spring, hungry black bears sometimes peel the bark from trees to eat the sapwood because of its high sugar content. The peeling can scar or kill a tree. Stands of trees in industrial forests are particularly vulnerable to damage from bears seeking to replenish their depleted fat stores.
WDFW authorized the killing of black bears to protect commercial timber stands from tree peeling.
The appellate court’s decision invalidates the department’s rule that allowed timber companies to use private hunters to bait bears and chase them with hounds upon receiving a permit from the state. Dozens of bears have been killed with these methods by such permit holders prior to the court’s intervention.
After assessing the intent of the voters in passing the citizen initiatives, the court reasoned that the law limits use of bait to “agents” or employees of state or federal agencies. The court explained that it would make “little sense” to interpret “agent” so broadly as to include such private hunters, which the department has characterized as “independent contractors.”
In addition to striking down the rule, the court said that the department’s management of the timber hunting permit program is “of ongoing concern” to the public and that additional judicial attention is required to “provide guidance to public officers.”
“The court recognized that the department has been defying the will of the voters and running an illegal program for more than 20 years,” said Claire Loebs Davis of Animal and Earth Advocates, the lead attorney on the case. “We hope that the department will take what the court has said to heart, and take steps to ensure that all of its programs, including the timber hunt program, comply with both the letter of the law and the will of the voters.”
“The appellate court has confirmed that Washington officials should never have issued permits to private hunters to cruelly bait bears and chase them with dogs,” Adkins said. “Now we’ll focus on shutting down the program for good.”
The ruling sends the case back to the trial court for additional consideration.
In June 2018, a Thurston County Court ruled that no further permits could be issued under the program until the court heard the facts of the case and determined whether the department would need to create new rules. Last summer that court ruled against the Center, which then appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals.