black bear

A Washington judge ruled Aug. 9 that Fish and Wildlife can resume issuing permits to timberland owners to remove bears that damage trees.

OLYMPIA — A Washington judge Friday reinstated a Fish and Wildlife program that allows timberland owners to kill tree-damaging black bears.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy ruled that the Center for Biological Diversity had failed to prove the practice violated initiatives that banned using bait, traps and dogs to hunt bears.

An attorney for the center, Sophia Ressler, said the organization will consider appealing the ruling. It also will lobby Fish and Wildlife to adopt new rules that bar the practices from being used to control problem bears.

"Washington voters very outspokenly said they didn't want those methods used on black bears in Washington state," she said.

Washington Farm Forestry Association government affairs director Heather Hansen said small timberland owners can lose a substantial portion of their trees to bears.

"If it's your savings account that's being robbed, it's a big deal to you," she said. "We're very, very happy the judge recognized it's a valid rule, that landowners have a right to protect their property."

Voters banned recreational hunting with bait and hounds in 1996 and followed up with a prohibition on traps in 2000. The initiatives made exemptions for predators, such as cougars and black bears, that are a danger to life and property.

Fish and Wildlife says it issues about 100 permits to timberland owners each year to remove black bears between April and June.

Hungry bears emerge from hibernation and finding little else to eat strip bark from trees and eat the sap, according to the department. Timber groups say the peeling kills or stunts trees and costs landowners millions of dollars every year.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued Fish and Wildlife last year to stop the program. Murphy suspended the program in June 2018 until she could hear arguments and make a permanent decision.

The hearing came Friday, after this year's period for removing bears. "We had a couple of landowners who we're extremely concerned and documented their losses and there was nothing they could do about it," Hansen said.

Murphy listened to lawyers argue for about two hours and then said Fish and Wildlife's program was lawful.

The center had claimed Fish and Wildlife made it too easy for timberland owners to target bears. The initiatives allowed landowners or government agents to remove troublesome black bears, but they didn't allow property owners to enlist the services of state-approved master hunters, the center argued.

A lawyer for timber groups that intervened in the lawsuit said the center's argument "borders on absurdity."

The interpretation would make sense "perhaps to a legal scholar or an expert in parsing the language," said David Bechtold, representing Washington Farm Forestry Association and Western Forestry Conservation Association.

Fish and Wildlife's lawyer, Amy Dona, stressed that landowners have a constitutional right to protect their property. The state has a robust population of about 25,000 black bears, even with the timber-protection program, according to the department.

Murphy said she didn't see anything glaringly wrong with the department's program or process it used in writing the rules. She concluded it was a reasonable response to an issue the department was expected to handle.

Fish and Wildlife announced in February it would take another look at the rules for removing black bears. It has not made a formal proposal.

Hansen said the program could be revised to make documenting damage and getting a permit less time consuming.

Master hunters are essential for small landowners because pursing bears with hounds is impractical, she said. The bear and dogs soon run onto someone else's property, she said. 

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