Port officials say the otter traps are set every year, but some in the community raised concerns about what happens to the animals after they’re caught.
Author: Christian Vosler, Kitsap Sun
Published: 11:19 AM PST January 19, 2018
Updated: 11:19 AM PST January 19, 2018
Residents and boaters complained last week when they learned that river otters that frequent the area around the Kingston Marina were trapped — a process Port of Kingston officials say is standard practice.
The protests were at least partially effective. The port won’t stop trapping the critters, but the method being used now leads to a happier result for the otters themselves.
Otters are drawn to marinas because they find food there, but they can become a nuisance. They defecate on the docks, for one thing, and they can cause serious damage to vessels or boathouses.
Port officials say the otter traps are set every year, but some in the community raised concerns about what happens to the animals after they’re caught.
Mark Andresen, a Kingston resident, said he noticed a port employee with a trapper setting the snares in the water last week. When Andresen asked, the employee told him the otters would be killed.
“I said, really, you’re going to just kill them?” Andresen said.
Andresen, who has had a slip at the marina for seven years, said he was shocked that the port would kill the animals just for defecating on the dock.
“It seems like the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” he said.
Port executive director Jim Pivarnik said several people objected to the traps. He emphasized that the port isn’t setting or checking the traps — the agency contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program to capture and deal with otters.
“We do have a lot of damage being done, not just pooping on the dock,” Pivarnik said. “We have otters that will move into boats and have babies, we’ll have them just making terrible messes, ripping canvas and things like that.”
Trapping otters is an annual operation for the port, according to Pivarnik, and something most marinas have to deal with. He said it’s the first time anyone has complained about the practice.
“We’ve never really had an issue with it until this year,” Pivarnik said. “It just takes one person to complain and then all of a sudden it turns into, ‘We’re killing Bambi.’”
Under state law, river otters are “furbearers,” meaning they can be trapped during open season with a trapping license. Killing river otters is legal if they damage property, crops or domestic animals, according to the Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Trapping otters should be a last resort, according to Matt Blankenship, a wildlife conflict specialist with the state. But it can be a more reliable method in commercial areas — nonlethal methods like scare tactics or barriers don’t work as well in marinas because of the elusiveness of the animal.
“You can deploy some of these nonlethal techniques out there, but often they’ll move around and its harder to do that,” Blankenship said.
Kingston isn’t the only marina in Kitsap that has an issue with river otters.
The Port of Poulsbo hires a private professional trapper every few years to catch and relocate them to the Olympic Peninsula, according to port manager Brad Miller.
“They just make a nuisance of themselves, they defecate all over the place, they can actually be destructive …. some of the boathouses that have the old foam flotation, they will tear that up,” Miller said.
At the Brownsville Marina, river otters are “absolutely” a problem, interim port manager Matt Appleton said. Otters have chewed holes in docks, nested in boats and chased people around the marina. At some point, it becomes a safety problem.
“They get into people’s boathouses, they do all kinds of physical damage,” Appleton said.
The Port of Brownsville also pays the USDA to trap the animals every year, but Appleton said he isn’t sure what the agency does with them once they’ve been caught.
“As long as they leave here, I’m not concerned with what happens,” he said.
In contrast, Port of Bremerton officials don’t hear many otter complaints at the Bremerton and Port Orchard marinas. The port had contracted with the USDA for a trap and release program in the past, but most boaters know that dealing with otters is part of boat ownership, port manager Kathy Garcia said.
That’s how Andresen, the Kingston Marina boater, feels.
“You take a hose and you spray it (the poop) off. … If you have a boat then that’s part of the deal, it comes with the territory,” Andresen said.
Because of the complaints from Andresen and others, the Port of Kingston asked the USDA to swap to “live” traps earlier this week, Pivarnik said. But he said he isn’t sure what will be done with the otters once they are caught.
Some boaters voiced objections because they thought the carcasses of the otters were being wasted, but Andresen thinks they shouldn’t be being killed at all.
“I understand they’re a nuisance, I’ve had them come into my backyard,” Andresen said. “But we kind of put our stuff on top of their world.”
Grizzly bears in Denali National Park (Photo by Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via Flickr)
He said it. He really did. To everyone’s surprise, on March 23, at the North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — the same Ryan Zinke who had recommended shrinking Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and who had announced last June that Yellowstone’s grizzlies would be dropped from the endangered species list — declared that he was all for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
“We are moving forward with plans to restore the bear to the North Cascades,” Zinke said, stating unequivocally that the stalled process of preparing an environmental impact statement for grizzly restoration there would be completed by the end of this year.
If that really happens, then — 43 years after grizzlies were first listed under the Endangered Species Act — federal agencies can start bringing them back to the Cascades.
Once upon a time, hundreds of grizzlies roamed the North Cascades, as they roamed virtually all the rest of the Western United States. But for more than a century, people shot and trapped them, and the big bears were virtually all gone by the time North Cascades National Park was created in 1968. A year before that, at least one grizzly had still roamed the mountains; somebody shot it within what soon became the park.
Eight years later, grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. A federal recovery plan subsequently designated six grizzly bear recovery zones. One recovery zone covered 6 million acres, nearly all of it national park and national forest land in the North Cascades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a North Cascades chapter to the national grizzly bear restoration plan 21 years ago, but it was never funded until late in the Obama administration. The environmental impact statement (EIS) process then began, but the Interior Department halted it last year.
Now, if the EIS gets finished as Interior Secretary Zinke promises, the feds can move ahead with restoration.
In the years after that lone grizzly was shot in 1967, people have occasionally reported seeing something that sure looked like a grizzly bear, and biologists have assumed a handful of bears at least dropped by. But for years, no one has found hard evidence. The draft EIS explains that in the previous 10 years, there were only four confirmed sightings in the North Cascades — all north of the border with Canada.
Despite extensive research, says Jack Oelfke, head of cultural and natural resources for North Cascades National Park, “we have not had a verified sighting of a grizzly bear on the U.S. side of the border in this ecosystem since the mid-1990s.” In other words, “the population is functionally extirpated. So, it is safe to say that any bears that might be seen on the U.S. side of the border are ‘tourists,’ and are not residents … but that we haven’t even verified a ‘tourist’ bear since the mid-1990s.”
No one expects that grizzlies, left to their own devices, will form a self-sustaining population in the North Cascades ever again. Washington’s current wolf packs were started by individual animals that just walked into the state. Why don’t grizzlies do the same? There are bears north of the border in British Columbia; the closest populations are endangered themselves. Besides, to get here from the north, a bear faces a number of barriers near the border: They would have to swim the Fraser River — not a big challenge for a bear — and cross railroad lines, roads, the Trans-Canada Highway. All together, the barriers are formidable.
If we, as a society, want a grizzly population in the North Cascades, we’ll have to start by hauling in bears from someplace else. Some people don’t like the idea. In 1995, just two years after the recovery plan came out, the state Legislature declared unequivocally, “Grizzly bears shall not be transplanted or introduced into the state.” That law, however, has no legal bearing on national park or national forest lands in the North Cascades. If bears are transported here from Canada or Montana, though, the law would keep state agencies from taking part in restoration efforts.
Joe Scott, international programs director for Conservation Northwest, sees a contradiction: Virtually no one objects to letting nature take its course. If grizzlies show up on their own and take up residence in the North Cascades, that’s OK. But if they get chauffeured in, it’s not so universally accepted. Still, you would have bears there either way.
Before federal agencies would move grizzlies into the North Cascades, Scott says, “They’ve got to find the right bears.” When the restoration planning process started, the national park’s Oelfke says, “we laid out criteria.” First, they’d only take bears from a population that seemed healthy enough to part with some. And they would avoid bears that had any history of conflict with human beings. A bear that already had a taste for garbage would not be a good fit. Problem bears get shot, no matter where they wind up. “Any bear that associates human beings with food is a goner,” Scott says.
The feds, it’s envisioned, would pick bears from an ecosystem that contained foods also found in the North Cascades. Then, they would pick young bears, between 2 and 5 years old. Older bears would be much more likely to pack up and leave. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm notes, “Older bears have already invested a portion of their lives in learning their home territories.” Why wouldn’t they go back? (Everyone involved in the North Cascades planning process knows the story of Winston, a grizzly from British Columbia’s Coast Range mountains that was placed experimentally in the North Cascades years ago. He was collared, so scientists monitoring him knew that he hung out for a while near Ross Lake, then headed for home, crossing roads and walking through people’s yards without being seen. They don’t want more Winstons.)
The scientists would also choose more young females than young males to rebuild the population. Plus, females would be less likely to head back home. The bears might come from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem around Glacier National Park or maybe from Wells Gray Provincial Park, well north of Kamloops in eastern British Columbia.
Populations of predators have certainly been introduced into habitat they had historically roamed. The classic example is Yellowstone wolves. Closer to home, you can look at fishers in the Olympics and Cascades. But grizzlies have only been introduced once — — it is still being done — in the Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana, part of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone.
The project there appears to be successful, offering a template for restoration in the North Cascades, according to Kasworm, who has led the Montana work from the beginning. “We have taken a population that ran in the single digits and brought it back to about 25,” he explains.
It is what he calls “a slow progression.” He and his colleagues started in 1990, introducing four bears as a test between that year and 1994. It took another 10 years, until 2004, to find the first DNA evidence that the bears had started reproducing. Now, he says, they’re going on the fourth generation.
The recovery plan Zinke backed for the North Cascades has a no-action alternative — just keep on keeping on and if grizzlies show up, that will be nice — and three action alternatives, all of which envision a population of up to 200 grizzly bears a century from now. Scott says that some people seem to have “a perception that the ultimate objectives are meant to be immediate. It’ll take a century to get to 200 bears — if all goes well.”
“The most [bears] I’ve heard of being moved in any one year is a handful,” he explains. Alternative C — which Conservation Northwest favors — would bring in up to 25 bears over the first 10 years. Not all of those bears would survive. Some would walk away. At best, the population would grow by a couple of bears each year.
The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service received 127,000 public comments on their draft EIS. Not all were favorable. That was hardly a surprise. Ranchers who already feel beleaguered by wolf packs don’t welcome the prospect of more large predators. And, of course, the idea of a charging grizzly bear is beyond scary, even though, in reality, fewer people are killed by grizzlies than perish in avalanches, according to statistics compiled by Backpacker magazine some years ago.. The seven avalanche deaths in Washington this winter exceed the number of people killed by bears of any kind in all of North America during any year since the turn of the century.
Occasionally, (bear) shit does happen. A man I know was hiking some years ago in Glacier National Park, on a trail along which no bear activity had been reported, when he and a friend saw what they thought was a big dog out in a field. The dog ran toward them. It turned out to be a young male grizzly. It mauled the two people. There’s no way to sugar-coat that.
Oelfke with the North Cascades National Park doesn’t try. He does point out, though, that society has decided to save species, and that entails certain risks. As does spending time in designated wilderness areas.
Then there’s climate change to consider. Would climate change, the elephant in so many rooms, ultimately make the North Cascades a lousy place for grizzly bears, no matter how many are trucked in? Probably not. Officials will do more work on climate change “to pin down what the anticipated changes will be,” Oelfke says. But he says that grizzly bears are noted for their “incredible flexibility” about food. He notes “Their range before [European] settlement,” he notes, “was from the far north all the way to Mexico.” In the North Cascades, “a variety of habitats exist,” Oelfke says, “and thus a variety of food resources.” The bears are “such generalists that even with some changes in habitat, they may not become affected” by the higher temperatures, thinner snowpacks and more frequent downpours predicted for Washington, he says.
Their chances will, of course, be better if Zinke’s support represents a trend, rather than an anomaly. After Zinke’s Sedro-Woolley speech, Conservation Northwest’s executive director, Mitch Friedman,told The Seattle Times’ Lynda Mapes, “Let me catch my breath. Nixon went to China. Zinke is going to bring the grizzly bear back to the North Cascades.”
And why not? “Wildlife conservation used to be a bipartisan issue,” Scott says. “It would be nice to think that wildlife would once again become a bipartisan issue.”
Bushwhacking through a trail-less valley in the heart of North Cascades, I came across some enormous tracks and a huge pile of scat that, having not seen their maker, I attributed to either Bigfoot or a grizzly bear. But that was over 35 years ago and I haven’t seen hide nor hair, nor heard of many sightings of either of them since then.
I hate to tell Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, but a “conservation ethic” is something we should have before a species is hunted and trapped practically to extinction and is in need of augmentation—as is the case with Washington’s grizzly bears. Now that would be a real success story. And the few hundred specimens in the Greater Yellowstone area do not add up to a recovered species for the lower 48.
Yet, no sooner did our current Administration remove the imperiled bears from the Threatened Species List did the state of Wyoming set a plan to hunt 24 grizzlies this fall season. Meanwhile, Idaho, with an even lower population of grizzly bears, felt they could sacrifice one to five of them to trophy hunting, if only to get their goose-stepping foot in the door on the issue.
It’s worth noting that B.C. recently banned trophy hunting of grizzlies, and Montana has not yet made plans for a sport hunt on that species. The question for Washington is, which neighbors will we emulate now that the bears have lost their ESA protections?
And what’s next for the Northwest, a trophy hunt on Sasquatch? Believe me, you don’t want that smelly hominid hide hanging on your wall—not if you ever want to have house-guests.
Ancient groves of Douglas fir trees still stand in North Cascades National Park. The little-visited park — it receives less than one percent of the annual visitation of Yellowstone — can resemble the misty, prehistoric woods before the Pacific Northwest was settled. Wolverines, cougars, moose, and hundreds of other species of animals dwell here, living among ponds and beneath towering, pinnacled mountains.
But although these woodlands in Washington State were also once rich in grizzly bears, the park hasn’t confirmed spotting any in years. After being thoroughly hunted, there may be none left.
“Withouthelp, that population will not recover on its own,” Frank van Manen, head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said in an interview.
The nation’s top wildlife managers have been planning to recover grizzly bears in North Cascades since 1991. The process, though, is intensely bureaucratic, requiring years of evaluations, re-evaluations, and proposals (some of which are hundreds of pages long).
Now, though, after more than 20 years of research, it might actually happen.
But Zinke maintained that grizzly bear recovery is part of “continuing our commitment to conservation.”
He may have been swayed by the expanse and wildness of the North Cascades region. There aren’t many places left to recovery grizzly bears, and North Cascades is as good as it gets. The park is surrounded by national forests on three sides and several Canadian territorial parks adjoin the park to the north.
“It’s a tremendously wild area,” Chris Servheen, the former Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview. “There’s a tremendous amount of grizzly bear habitat.”
Recovering grizzly bears in the North Cascades means transporting bears from British Columbia into the park. According to the park’s plans, the bears will be helicoptered in, as that’s the only way to access extremely remote areas in a mostly roadless place.
There are four different options on the table right now, detailed in the park’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). One option, which Zinke apparently opposes, is doing nothing. If so, the remaining few bears will die out. The other three options propose restoring grizzly bear populations to approximately 200 individuals during the next 25, 60, or 100 years.
Helicoptering sedated bears to their homes in the deep backwoods of North Cascades, then, isn’t just a logistical challenge. It requires a long-term commitment from wilderness managers from multiple agencies. It’s also pricey.
“A well-funded project that has a broad base of public and political support can do the job,” Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus in animal behavior and ecology at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.
“It ain’t easy — but it sure is possible,” he said.
A shining example of where successful bear recovery has occurred is in Yellowstone National Park. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the population of 136 bears there as endangered, but the population has since grown to around 700 bears today. These bears were taken off the endangered species list last year.
North Cascades, with few bears left (perhaps none), may have a significantly more difficult hill to climb. Fortunately, decades of successful — and at times unsuccessful — bear management in Yellowstone show how it can be done.
“We have the tools in our toolbox to recover grizzlies in the North Cascades,” said Severheen. “We know how to do that.”
A critical factor, learned from Yellowstone, is keeping grizzly mothers alive.
“Ultimately, grizzly bear populations thrive or decline depending on the survival of adult females,” said van Manen.
Even into the early 1980s in Yellowstone, grizzly bear populations were declining. “There were too many adult females dying,” said van Manen. This was occurring in large part because bears were getting into garbage dumps, and they became habituated to humans, which then created conflicts with people. Many of these bears had to be killed.
But park managers solved these problems, and many others, including by encouraging cattle ranchers with allotments next to the park to voluntarily give up this leased land.
Although North Cascades and the surrounding forests provide a massive expanse of territory to reintroduce bears, some aren’t pleased with the government’s bear recovery plans.
The local Board of Skagit County Commissioners, have repeatedly opposed the grizzly introduction, citing public safety concerns. A spokesperson for the commissioners said none were available for comment.
Some ranchers are also concerned about grizzly bears in the area — and not just because bears that roam outside the park might eat some cattle.
“Reintroducing as many as 200 man-eating predators into an area already reeling from exploding gray wolf populations is anything but neighborly,” Ethan Lane, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association federal lands executive director, said in a statement.
Coming across a grizzly in the vast North Cascades wilderness, however, is unlikely. This is especially the case during the first decade, when 10 or 15 bears might be wandering the woods.
“We’re talking thousands of square miles of country,” said Severheen. “People won’t even know they’re in there.”
Additionally, bears “are the ultimate omnivores,” said van Manen. They eat almost anything in the wild: Fish, berries, grass — but humans are not part of a bear’s diet.
Nor do bears seek out people (unless they’ve been attracted to something like a food dump).
“Anybody that spends much time in grizzly bear country recognizes that there is a pretty low probability of having an interaction with bears,” said Severheen.
The Interior Department says that the final EIS draft will be released in late summer 2018. It will consider 126,000 public comments. From there, the Park Service and its management partners will pick one of the recovery options.
Recovering a fallen icon of the American West is bold, expensive, and will inevitably have its opponents. But national parks are required to conserve these places as they naturally exist, and grizzly bears are an integral part of this environment.
“There should be recovery in the North Cascades,” said Severheen.
SEATTLE (AP) – Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is set to establish an executive order calling for state actions to protect the unique population of endangered orcas that spend time in Puget Sound.
The fish-eating whales have struggled due to lack of food, pollution and noise and disturbances from vessels. There are now just 76, a 30-year low.
Inslee’s executive order will direct state agencies to take immediate steps and identify long-term solutions to help the whales. It would set up a task force to come up with recommendations.
Inslee is rolling out the order at a news conference Wednesday morning in Seattle.
The Legislature passed a supplemental budget Friday that includes money for increased patrols to keep boaters at a distance from the orcas and money to boost hatchery production of fish that the orcas prefer.
State Department of Fish and Wildlife police are asking for the public’s help after officers found more than two dozen dead ducks dumped along a roadside in Grays Harbor County on Dec. 26, 2017. (Photo: Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Police)
GRAYS HARBOR COUNTY, Wash. – State Department of Fish and Wildlife Police are asking for the public’s help to find whomever dumped more than two dozen dead ducks along a roadside in Grays Harbor County last week.
Officers said three white garbage bags containing 28 ducks that had been shot were discovered on December 26 at the Devonshire Road turnout on State Route 12, about nine miles east of Aberdeen.
The dead ducks included 8 hen Mallards, 18 Drake Mallards and two smaller birds.
A 60-year-old Moscow man was shot in the buttocks by a .50-caliber muzzleloading rifle while hunting near the 1300 block of Mica Mountain Road near Deary Monday morning.
Latah County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the accident about 9 a.m. and determined that the man’s hunting partner, a 72-year-old Potlatch man, believed he had been firing at an elk when he accidentally shot his friend.
The man was transported to Gritman Medical Center by the Deary ambulance and was in stable condition Tuesday.
CENTRALIA, Wash. (AP) – Two of the three newest suspects in a massive poaching investigation out of southwest Washington have pleaded not guilty.
The Chronicle reports Aaron Hendricks, his father-in-law David McLeskey of Woodland and Aaron Hanson are facing charges of first-degree animal cruelty, unlawful hunting of black bear, cougar, bobcat or lynx with dogs and second-degree unlawful hunting of animals.
Hendricks and McLeskey have pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.
Hanson is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.
According to court documents, officials uncovered a network of poachers after investigating William Haynes and Erik Martin who are suspected of engaging in illegal hunting activities.
Law enforcement identified Hanson, Hendricks and McLeskey as suspects and co-conspirators in the illegal activities from cellphone evidence.
A bear hunt is going on, even though voters outlawed the hunting practice two decades ago.
Alison Morrow, KING2:29 AM. PDT May 25, 2017
A hunting practice banned by Washington voters two decades ago continues to this day. Hound hunters are used to protect stands of commercial timber from the destructive habits of black bears. But a year-long KING 5 investigation shows the bears, killed for tree damage, may not be causing any problems whatsoever.
Hunting bears with dogs, outlawed in 1996 by the voter-approved Initiative 655, happens every spring in Washington. Animal rights advocates who backed I-655 decried the practice as cruel and unsportsmanlike. Hounds chase bears over long distances, exhausting them and allowing hunters to zero in for a final kill. Dogs are then rewarded by chewing on the bear. Bears are typically already dead or near dying.
Hunting bears with dogs is perfectly legal under an exception built into I-655. The provision in the law allows hound hunting to continue for the protection of property, but critics and experts say the legal loophole is being abused by the state and timber farmers against the letter and spirit of the law.
The official codification of I-655 – RCW 77.15.245 – includes the following allowance: “Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to prohibit the killing of black bear, cougar, bobcat, or lynx with the aid of a dog or dogs by employees or agents of county, state, or federal agencies while acting in their official capacities for the purpose of protecting livestock, domestic animals, private property, or the public safety. A dog or dogs may be used by the owner or tenant of real property consistent with a permit issued and conditioned by the director.”
The controversy centers on an interpretation of what it means to to protect private property. It’s pitting the Washington Department of Wildlife against its own staff and the backers of I-655.
“I think it’s disgusting and it’s frankly quite surprising to me that the Department of Fish and Wildlife would be so open violating a state initiative that the people of this state resoundingly approved,” said Lisa Wathne, who spearheaded the I-655 campaign 20 years ago while working for PAWS. Today, she is the Captive Wildlife Specialist for The Humane Society. Her group’s efforts to ban recreational hound hunting in Washington won with 63 percent of the vote.
Wathne was comfortable with the loophole in I-655 that allowed hound hunting to protect property by removing problem animals.
“They were to be very specific and for specific animals, not for a wholesale thinning of a population by any means,” she said.
In the case of bears, the allowance is used every spring on timber farms. Bears are hungry when they come out of hibernation, and trees offer a quick, high-calorie snack thanks to syrup underneath the bark. When the bears peel the bark, though, they can damage or even kill trees. Trees between the age of 12 and 25 years old are the most vulnerable. The Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA) blames bears for millions of dollars in damage every year.
Timber farmers argue they need to protect their trees from bears that are damaging their product. But KING 5 found the springtime bear hunts on timber farms are not focused on targeting problem bears. Hundreds of internal staff emails and documents obtained by KING 5 show that the program centers on reducing the overall number of bears in vulnerable tree stands, not – as state law requires – removing specific bears known to be damaging trees.
A man who has hunted for the Bear Timber Depredation Management Program (BTDM) for decades said the program is being abused, at the expense of non-offending bears. He describes a system that has evolved into an elite hunting club rather than a damage-control program. It didn’t start that way, he says. He’s noticed a trend that’s taken the program away from its original intent.
“The idea was to take the problem bear and there was no pressure on you to get out there and kill as much as they are now,” the man said. He asked us not to disclose his identity for fear of retaliation against his family and his dogs.
For decades the man has used his dogs to hunt bears, helping kill hundreds of them. But he said he’s concerned that both large industrial timber foresters and small forest landowners are no longer concerned with targeting problem bears. They just want to kill bears, he says, and WDFW enables it while clouding the hunts in secrecy.
In recent years, declared kills on timber farms have resulted in the reported death of about 100 bears. Other years, the number of bears removed has hovered around 200. But a year-long KING 5 investigation concludes those official tallies could be considerably inaccurate, as the bear hunts on private lands have historically occurred with little oversight. Even the state’s wildlife enforcement officers say the system is so broken that there’s little they can do to enforce hunting rules.
This hunter says he’s never once crossed paths with wildlife police while hunting bears on timber land.
“The old saying is, if you don’t see it, you don’t have to think about it,” he said. “It’s just like, OK, it’s all-out war guys.”
When foresters find one damaged tree, WDFW grants a permit to kill two bears. Permits are also granted on what’s called “historical damage” from the previous year. That means a forester can get a renewed permit to kill bears the year after they find fresh damage. They do not have to prove bears are causing any new issues. It doesn’t matter if several bears were already killed for the damage in the year prior.
Stacks of emails KING 5 obtained through public disclosure show state employees are also alarmed about the program. In a late 2016 internal email, a WDFW biologist wrote about timber giant Weyerhaeuser, “They are viewing the bear damage program as a means to suppress the overall bear population and therefore, reduce damage. I get why, as a timber company, they would want to do that but that is not the way this program was designed.”
In another 2016 staff report, a wildlife specialist argues Weyerhaeuser is creating a large hunting area. Several complaints KING 5 uncovered show that timber companies stack permits beside each other to maximize land areas for the hunt. The wildlife specialist who wrote the report says it goes against the program’s intent “to avoid killing more bears than necessary.”
AWDFWbiologist wrote in one email dated November 7, 2016: “It seems like the system in place is just being manipulated by those who want to be able to run their dogs and to some extent by timber owners/individual foresters who are facilitating it…it seems like they don’t even want the bears, just the chance to pursue them.”
Another WDFW biologist wrote in a 2014 email, “Only one-quarter of bears killed have bark in their stomach.” An additional 2016 internal report to WDFW management says the system is “purposely being abused,” but staff are discouraged from revoking privileges.
The hunter we interviewed believes the program has turned into a secret fraternity where power and politics provide an exclusive bear hunting season – the only one left in Washington for hunters who want to use dogs. Timber farms benefit by reducing the potential for damaged trees, he says, while hunters get to run their hounds. They’re chosen by the timber companies and approved by Georg Ziegltrum, the longtime head of WFPA’s Animal Damage Control Program.
“If given opportunity they all girdle trees and they all are ‘problem’ bears in damage areas,” Ziegltrum said.
For Ziegltrum, every bear has the potential to peel.
“Intraspecific stress (too many bears in one given area) may have more to do with timber damage than one ‘guilty’ ingenious bark peeler,” he said. “I-655 is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The WDFW understands our problem and is closely and effectively working with our industry. Regulations for bear removal are plentiful and heavy. All damage is witnessed and approved by WDFW. I have a 100 percent compliance record with the agency for years and I’m proud of it.”
KING 5 learned that foresters often tell hunters not to discuss the hunt, for fear of public outrage.
“Some of the foresters want you to kill, kill, kill – no matter what. Even the foresters have kind of a game between ‘em to who gets the trophy every year for the most bear killed,” the hunter said. “Just like one forester said, ‘All I want to know is about the first bear and the last bear. In between, I don’t care.’”
Internal WDFW emails and reports reveal that kill permits are given to timber farms before wildlife specialists verify damage. A program administrator wrote in a 2014 email, “Timber companies have put pressure on the program to issue first, then verify.” Another staffer wrote in 2015, “Often times the permit has been filled before the Conflict Specialist has gone out to the site to even verify.” In another 2015 email, a wildlife specialist said, “I have not been able to verify the preliminary damage prior to them taking two bear.”
Sources told KING 5 that procedures like this, aimed at speeding up the permitting process, are unique to the bear damage program even though elk damage, for instance, is far more common statewide. Reports also show that, sometimes, staff arrive to alleged damage sites only to find “no significant damage at all.” But it’s too late, as bears authorized for kill might already be dead.
One state biologist wrote in a 2016 email, “This is not the way this program was designed.”
WHY BEARS ARE TARGETED
For Ken Miller, the damage is anything but insignificant.
“Brown spots all over the hillside and those were dead trees,” he said while pointing toward a ridgeline in Oakville, southwest of Olympia.
Miller is a small forest landowner, which means he farms far less land than an industrial company like Weyerhaeuser. His tree farm borders the Capitol State Forest near Olympia, which is prime bear habitat. He took us on a long and bumpy drive to see his trees, though land he says foresters protect from development. He thinks his profession is often the object of unfair negativity, criticized for killing trees and sometimes the wildlife that hurts profit. He argues, more often than not, bears benefit from tree farming.
“It really is cool to be a tree farm,” he said. “We’re doing great stuff for the environment.”
Miller and his wife saw their farm as an investment in their retirement or grandchildren’s education. The couple and their son planted 18,000 trees by hand in three months. They each planted 500 a day.
“I made bags we wore around our waist,” said Ken’s wife, Bonnie. “We were really proud of ourselves. We had some nice trees. Then all of a sudden, we found something.”
What they found alarmed them – dozens of trees damaged by bears.
“I was desperate, in a panic, because our financial wherewithal for our retirement years was on the line,” Ken said. “That’s big money. That’s like someone stealing money out of your 401(k).”
Ken admitted that he was so desperate that he asked a hunter to kill bears in secret. He says that was 15 years ago, and he hasn’t broken any rules since.
“Maybe I’m not totally proud of it, but I would do it again if I was in that same situation and that was the only option I had to protect my property,” Ken said.
He said there are too many bears for available habitat, and he believes he is drowning in a permitting process that prevents him from killing bears fast enough to protect his trees. For Miller, small forest landowners suffer unduly from bear damage and need more help from the state, given that a few damaged trees represent a much greater percentage of lost investment compared to industrial farms.
If the program is about population control as critics argue it is, he says, WDFW is failing.
If there were fewer bears, and the state eased the path toward removing them, Miller believes he would have fewer problems.
Ninety-percent of the damage is typically reported in Regions 5 and 6, which includes Pierce, Cowlitz, Lewis, Wahkiakum and Clark Counties. The bear harvest during timber hunts tends to be about 35 percent of the bears harvested in those regions during the general season. WDFW does not include the timber hunt harvests in the information shared with the public on its website.
“I think we under harvest bears, probably, in this state as a whole,” said WDFW Game Division Manger Anis Aoude.
In an interview that lasted two hours, KING 5 asked Aoude and his WDFW colleague, Stephanie Simek, about the Bear Timber Depredation Management Program. A couple years ago, the program’s oversight was handed from Enforcement to the Wildlife Program. Aoude and Simek created a subcommittee comprised of biologists, conflict specialists, enforcement officers, and foresters in order to forge new paths toward better management.
It was the moment when many staffers hoped chronic abuses of the program would finally see change, internal sources told KING 5. Today, that hope has turned into increased frustration. As one employee wrote in a November 2016 email, “Wow, I am blown away that the same issues keep occurring over and over with absolutely no consequences. It seems absolutely crazy that we have taken the time to careful (sic) develop all of these rules and they aren’t being followed.”
“We’re trying to find a way where folks can still grow timber and harvest it and bears can still be on the landscape,” Aoude said. “We hear the criticism. We take it to heart. We are working to improve things.”
For Aoude, any bear that lives near vulnerable trees is a potential problem.
“You’re never going to know what bears are peeling and what bears are not,” he said.
He pointed to efforts at tightening restrictions like reducing the hunt zone from a 5-mile radius to a 3-mile radius. That way, he and Simek said, hunters don’t kill bears far away from damage.
In an email Simek sent on April 15, 2015, she told several foresters, “Remember that the presence of a bear on your property does not mean it has or will cause any damage.”
And yet, Simek and Aoude support allowing hunters to use hounds for killing bears before damage ever occurs. When trees are between 15 and 30 years old, they are most susceptible to bear peeling. Aoude says it makes for efficient property protection to reduce the number of bears in timber stands of that age class.
“Once the damage has occurred, you’re almost too late,” he said. “So if you had damage the year before, you can almost guarantee you’ll have damage the year after. Because not only are those trees peeled and could be peeled further, there are trees next to them that are the same age.”
The hound hunting ban allowed bear populations to grow problematically and hurt the state’s ability to manage the carnivores, Aoude said.
“It’s unfortunate that the tool was removed by legislation, because it is one of the most effective ways to pursue and harvest bears,” he said.
Aoude defended the practice of killing two bears per permit as well, even if no fresh damage was found, by calling it an efficient way to give good customer service.
“And at this point, bears are doing fine in the state. Their populations are doing just fine and there’s really no need for us to be concerned with individual woodlots,” he said.
As for allegations the system is abused by foresters, Simek says, it’s an unfair characterization.
“I think it’s an overgeneralization. People say what they want to say and what they want to believe,” Simek said.
Still, people like Wathne and others are concerned WDFW’s approach violates the law. That’s because they believe the spirit of I-655 only allowed for hound hunting when animals are actively causing damage. They believe voters wanted to ban the practice for population control, and allow for it only when an animal proves it’s a problem.
About 40 hunters participate in the program annually, but the vast majority of bears are taken by a few dozen. By comparison in the same regions, the recreational bear season sees about 3,500 hunters buying licenses to harvest bears later in the year. Their success rate is far lower than the hound hunters.
If someone wants to know how many bears are killed on tree farms, though, it’s not so easy to find. WDFW does not include the data on its website with other bears harvested in general seasons.
That’s why KING 5 filed a request for the number of bears killed each year since 2004. Our research shows, in some years, the state’s authorized the killing of as many as 334 bears for timber damage alone. That was in 2011. It was the highest number of permits granted in the records we obtained. The total amount of bears harvested on the 2011 permits was 182, with 66 females and 116 males killed. The lowest year for permits written was 2016, with 162 bears authorized for removal. Of the total allowed, 86 were reported killed; 27 were females and 59 were males.
Without exception, male bears are killed far more often than females. Typically, hunters kill nearly double the amount of male bears as female bears. For WDFW bear expert, Rich Beausoleil, that’s concerning since data shows the offending bears are more often hungry females, many with new cubs. Male bears, however, may be targeted for their size.
“What we’re finding from the removal statistics that are coming in is that males are being targeted. Females are dying too, but more males than females. That makes us wonder, are we targeting the right bear?” he said.
Beausoleil said the state has used hunter data to estimate the bear population until recently. Hunters are supposed to turn in a tooth from the bear for research, but they only do that 20 percent of the time. That’s why Beausoleil’s recent research project is showing that the long-held belief Washington has 35,000 bears is wrong. He estimates the number is much closer to 20,000. The average bear has an annual survival rate of about 80-90 percent, but on timber farms, that number drops to 60 percent.
Though the number of bears killed for causing timber damage typically totals only 10 percent of the bears killed every year statewide, Beausoleil says the number is much higher when considered from a more localized perspective.
“We could see harvest rates at 40 percent, and that’s higher than we’d like to see. That can cause a population decline, if that’s not what we want to do as an agency,” he said. “So, it’s really important not to look at it on a washed-out statewide view or even on a regional view, but to zoom and see what’s going on, because this could be your backyard, and you might have an interest in knowing the bears are OK where you live.”
Timber farms are invaluable assets for protecting wildlife in the state, Beausoleil says. That’s why he hopes collaboration with foresters and better program management will provide opportunity for change.
“These lands that private timber provide, provide habitat in a big way. There’s a lot of land out there that’s helping wildlife,” he said.
KING 5 told former state legislator Hans Dunshee about its investigation of the bear depredation program. Dunshee, a Democrat from Snohomish, served as the 44th District state representative for two decades and was a fierce supporter of I-655 and opposed several attempts to repeal it.
“You’re not authorized by the will of the people to just exterminate all bears in an area, because they might be a problem,” he said. “This program violates the initiative because it focuses on population. It assumes population is a problem not a problem animal.”
Dunshee believes the state’s abusing its power and violating voter trust, all while setting a bad example.
“We’re all supposed to follow the law. If government doesn’t follow the law, then citizens say, ‘We don’t have to,’” he said. “The department is destroying the trust of everybody, and it’s creating lawlessness.”
And that’s exactly what we found WDFW staff are concerned about, as well.
“I’ve had more than one officer tell me, ‘I’m not going to work these anymore,’” said retired WDFW Captain Murray Schlenker.
Schlenker retired from WDFW police last year. He calls the rules confusing and inconsistent.
“You can go out and knock yourself out as a law enforcement officer, but cases aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said.
Our investigation found hunters caught breaking the rules aren’t held accountable. They’re almost always allowed to keep on hunting. In a 2014 case involving one of the program’s most prolific hunters, an enforcement officer recommended the state ban an offending hunter from killing bears on timber farms.
Here’s what happened: Hunters get one yellow tag per bear they’re allowed to kill. That tag is supposed to be immediately clipped onto the bear’s ear so that it cannot be reused, a policy aimed at preventing hunters from taking more bears than allowed. This particular hunter was located nearly four miles from the kill site, the bear gutted and packed in a box used to transport dogs. But the hunter had the tags in his pocket.
Though the officer who filed the case told management the hunter should not be allowed to hunt on timber permits any longer, WDFW management did nothing. That hunter continues to be one of the most active in the program
KING 5 obtained an email written by the enforcement officer at the time. He complained, “My frustration level is at an extreme,” because hunters “pick and choose” what rules to follow.
“That level of frustration is there for them and they don’t want to try good faith, conscientious effort and have it thrown back at them. That’s very demoralizing from an employee standpoint,” Schelnker said.
“It’s becoming harder to get good people out there, but we still have the good people: the good hound hunters, the ethical hound hunters, the people who play by the rules. We still have them working for us,” Ziegltrum said.
Ziegltrum, director of WFPA’s Animal Damage Control Program, is the one who gives final approval or denial of all hunters allowed on the BTDM permits. Aoude said that if hunters are legally allowed to harvest bears in Washington, WDFW has no power to deny their participation in the program. Ziegltrum does that.
“There is a very strong incentive for these people to stay in line,” he said. “They recognize we are the only game in town.”
As for the hunter caught with tags in his pockets, Ziegltrum says it was an honest mistake.
“This guy is still hunting, because we explained the situation to the state agency, and this young gentleman did not get himself into trouble,” he said.
Last year, WDFW Wildlife Program Manager Sandra Jonker wrote a letter of commendation to honor a hound hunter for exceptional efforts. “In particular I want to thank you and your hunting party for your help over the years…for ethically responsible hunting behavior,” she wrote.
It belongs to the same hunter who said the timber hunts are so mismanaged that ethical hunters are being forced out, leaving behind those willing to bend the rules.
“And, the way the foresters think, is that they will have to do it our way because we’re the biggest employers in the state,” he said.
He’s not against hound hunting. He thinks dogs, with their keen sense of smell, are the best way to target problem bears. But dogs only do what their handler wants, and he says too often, foresters and hunters just want blood.
“These guys don’t have no respect for wildlife. The more they get, they think the better hunter they are,” he said.
Dunshee believes WDFW’s management of the BTDM program could set the agency back in its efforts to unite culturally and politically disparate groups in Washington, often divided over wildlife.
“I think it destroys the trust in the agency. The agency is doing good things on wolves and cougars. I think this destroys the good will that’s been built between rural communities and animal welfare advocates,” Dunshee said. “I think the legislature should do an investigation. The evidence you have should be laid out for the public to see. I think it ought to be dealt with and if there are people in the upper management who have been burying this story, I think they ought to be held accountable.”
For Wathne, it’s criminal. She believes WDFW has turned a problem bear into a hunting season. She calls that poaching.
“And the department is enabling it. They are putting their stamp of approval on it apparently. You bet it’s poaching. It’s a violation of the law,” she said. “The initiative itself is very clear. So, perhaps it’s time to go to the Governor.”
In a staff report filed by a WDFW animal conflict specialist concern is voiced over the long-term effects of the timber farm hunts. In some Game Management Units, between a quarter and a third of the bears are killed because of tree damage. The report said, “During a conference call it was brought up that conflict staff in Region 5 does not support killing 2 bears per permit because we do not know the population effects. That statement was countered with the argument that if we don’t know the populations (sic) effects then why not allows (sic) two bears per permit? Is this consistent with this agency’s mission?”
In other documents KING 5 obtained, employees expressed concern that the bear hunts on timber farms reduce the available bears for harvest during recreational seasons, when hunters are paying for licenses that support the budget of WDFW.
“I think that as an agency we should be concerned with the fact that in the south Cascades in 2015 we had a recreational bear harvest of 99, but in 2016 we had a depredation harvest of 37. That is 27 percent of the recreational harvest, and we are talking about 3,600 recreational bear hunters versus a handful of hound hunters. The success rate for recreational hunters was 2.7 percent. I can’t help but wonder if taking these bears through the depredation hunt it isn’t taking away an opportunity from thousands of other recreational hunters who are purchasing a bear tag,” a WDFW biologist wrote in 2016.
Another staffer wrote in the same thread, “the system in place is just being manipulated.”
“We are not providing people with recreational opportunity,” Ziegltrum said.
Wathne met with Ziegltrum in the 1990s to discuss I-655. She met with many stakeholders as they molded the allowance for hound hunting to reduce tree damage. She believes the intention of the law was clear, not just for her but for WDFW and the timber industry. There should be no misunderstanding, she says, the loophole was never meant to cull bear populations.
“And what does it say to the people of Washington state?” Wathne said. “The Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t give a damn about what you voted for or about the bears of this state.”
Since KING 5 initially broadcast the investigation, Conservation Northwest has made a public appeal to WDFW for transparency on the issue, voicing concern that the use of the hunts violate I-655.
CLARIFICATION: The original script said hunters do not have to buy a bear license like recreational hunters to participate. We’ve since learned they do have to buy a bear tag but they do not use it for this hunt.
Watch the TV version of this story with closed captioning: Part 1 | Part 2
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – Some wolf advocates are outraged that the state is preparing for the second time to exterminate an entire wolf pack for preying on livestock in northeastern Washington state.
This is the second time in four years that a pack of endangered wolves has received the death penalty because of the grazing of privately owned cattle on publicly owned lands, the Center for Biological Diversity said.
Washington is home to about 90 wolves, and killing the 11 members of the Profanity Peak pack would amount to 12 percent of the population.
“By no stretch of the imagination can killing 12 percent of the state’s tiny population of 90 wolves be consistent with recovery,” said Amaroq Weiss, of the Center for Biological Diversity, on Thursday.
“We can’t keep placing wolves in harm’s way by repeatedly dumping livestock onto public lands with indefensible terrain, then killing the wolves when conflicts arise,” she said.
Last week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it would exterminate the Profanity Peak pack in Ferry County. Since mid-July, the agency has confirmed that wolves have killed or injured six cattle and probably five others, based on staff investigations.
Jim Unsworth, director of the agency, authorized the wolf hunts between the towns of Republic and Kettle Falls.
Wildlife officials shot two pack members Aug. 5, but temporarily ended wolf-removal efforts after two weeks passed without finding any more evidence of wolf predation on cattle.
“At that time, we said we would restart this operation if there was another wolf attack, and now we have three,” said Donny Martorello, WDFW wolf policy lead. “The department is committed to wolf recovery, but we also have a shared responsibility to protect livestock from repeated depredation by wolves.”
Since 2008, the state’s wolf population has grown from two wolves in one pack to at least 90 wolves and 19 packs.
Wolves were hunted to extinction in Washington at the beginning of the last century. Since the early 2000s, they’ve moved back into the state from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia.
That has set off alarm bells from people in rural areas, especially in northeastern Washington where the animals are concentrated.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has walked a fine line between environmental groups, who support wolf recovery, and ranchers who want to protect their herds. The issue has become a dividing line between urban and rural residents.
In 2012, hunters hired by the state killed members of the Wedge pack of wolves, in the same general area, for killing livestock.
Conservation groups say the livestock is the problem, not wolves.
“Cows grazing in thick forest and downed trees in the Colville National Forest are in an indefensible situation,” said Tim Coleman, executive director for Kettle Range Conservation Group. “We believe the wildest areas of our national forests should be a place where wolves can roam free.”
Under Washington’s wolf plan, livestock owners are eligible for taxpayer-funded compensation for losses. Taxpayers have also funded the radio collars placed on wolves.
Those collars are now being used to locate and kill the wolves. This practice is referred to as the use of “Judas wolves,” because the collared wolves unknowingly betray the location of their family members, Weiss said.
Some conservation groups do not oppose the hunt. Wolf Haven International, the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, and Conservation Northwest said they are focused on long-term goals.
“We remain steadfast that our important goals remain the long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves in our state alongside thriving rural communities,” the groups said in a press release. “We believe that ultimately we can create conditions where everyone’s values are respected and the needs of wildlife, wildlife advocates, and rural communities are met.”