FILE — Black Bear

In this May 17, 2015, file photo, a Louisiana black bear, sub-species of the black bear that was protected under the Endangered Species Act, is seen in a water oak tree in Marksville, Louisiana. 

(The Center Square) — The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will no longer offer black bear hunting permits to timberland owners intent on protecting trees from the animals, a federal court has ruled.

The Court of Appeals in Tacoma ruled on Tuesday that the practice violated a voter-approved initiative from 1996 which banned private hunters from using bait, hounds, and traps to remove problematic bears. By contrast, public employees are permitted to do so to protect public land.

The three-judge appeals court unanimously overruled a Thurston County Superior Court decisions which upheld the WDFW’s policy in 2019. The decision was in response to a lawsuit originally filed against WDFW by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Timberland owners and the WDFW held the position that killing the bears to protect private property was constitutional.

"We know that this is a controversial issue and that people feel passionately on both sides,” said WDFW Wildlife Program Director Eric Gardner. “We remain committed to working with a diversity of Washington citizens on ways to address bear timber damage and conflict and ultimately maintain sustainable black bear populations for future Washington generations.”

Judges Lisa Worswick, Anne Cruser, and Rich Melnick concluded that the r protects public and private property.

"The rule allows the department to issue permits to any hunter 'authorized by' the agency, but statute requires that the hunter be an 'agent' of a county, state or federal agency," Judge Rich Melnick wrote.

The Center for Biological Diversity will continue to press to eliminate the program and would lobby against the Legislature changing the law to allow landowners to use private hunters, said Collette Adkins, the group's carnivore conservation director and senior attorney.

WDFW reported that the state has a thriving black bear population of up to 30,000 bears, according to court documents. In 2018 alone, it issued 85 permits to kill bears damaging trees.

Bears often tear apart young trees on commercial timberlands for their sugary sap come spring as they transition out of hibernation, costing timberland owners millions.

The appeals court panel further ruled that black bear population control may still be permitted through "agents of the county, state or federal agencies while acting in their official capacity.”

Officials with the Center for Biological Diversity said that they will still be pursuing further action to protect wild bears.

“This ruling is a big win for Washington’s black bears,” Adkins said. “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.”

WDFW announced it will be considering its next moves. 

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.