(From the SEPT/OCT 2019 Issue)
By Al Raychard
Unless you live there or have hunted there you might not know the state of Washington has lots of black bears. Also a few grizzlies. Based on recent computer modeling and analysis conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife black bears are found pretty-much statewide except for the non-forested areas of the Columbia Basin. That means throughout all forested regions of the state, from the dense rainforests in the west to mountain ranges in the northeast and southeast counties. Considering Washington is home to some 22 million acres of forestland, nearly half the state, that’s a lot of prime bear territory! Considered abundant in these regions, Washington’s black bears number approximately 30,000 animals, one of the largest populations in the Lower 48.
Washington is also home to a small number of grizzly bear within the federally-designated transboundary Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Exact numbers are unknown but it is believed perhaps 20 grizzly bear reside within the state on a year-round basis. Periphery populations in northern Idaho and southern British Columbia undoubtedly contribute to the periodic expansion of the grizzly population but due to the low numbers and slow birth rates grizzly bears remain protected in Washington. Grizzly bears have also been documented in the North Cascades since 2010.
Although considered rare, because grizzlies and black bears occupy or wander the same areas bear hunters planning hunts in 12 wildlife management units in the northeast corner of the state and North Cascade region must complete a Black Bear Identification Test before purchasing a license. Information on specific units in question and tests are available on line using the WDF&W’s WILD system.
Based on recent harvest figures the bear hunting opportunities in Washington and the chances of filling tags can be considered good if not excellent, especially considering glassing clear cuts and mountain berry patches and spot-and-stalk and calling are the only legal tactics. With the passage of Initiative 655, a ballot referendum, the baiting of bear and use of dogs for hunting purposes has been prohibited since 1996. Since then as bear numbers have continued to grow hunting seasons have been extended, bag limits increased and in recent years roughly 1,500 bears have been removed from the statewide population annually.
Bear hunting is quite popular in Washington. About 20,000 hunters purchase bear hunting permits annually. Part of the reason is the challenge and growing interest in spot-and-stalk hunting. The long seasons, affordable license fees compared to some other western states, the fact general fall bear season licenses are available over the counter and there is a two bear limit are also major attractions.
Another draw is the limited spring season. Success rates during the spring season are higher than during the fall but hunting licenses are issued by draw. The application period generally opens in early January and runs through February. Spring bear hunts are historically limited to specific wildlife management units that are home to large commercial forests or other private lands. During the spring when foods are scarce bears peel the bark from trees to reach the nutrient-rich cambium layer causing millions of dollars of damage and loss. Units open during the spring hunt may vary year-to-year but generally include units north and west of Mount Rainier National Park and in the North Cascades. Some units in the northeast and southeast may also offer spring opportunities to reduce human/bear conflicts. Hunters should check with WDF&W or visit their web site for specific details on what units are open, season dates, application deadlines and other details.
One spring season detail to take note of is access. Outfitters typically take care any access permission or permit requirements but do-it-yourself hunters should note that access to private lands is extremely limited. In some units access permits must be purchased from timber land owners. Obtaining access prior to applying for a spring hunt is highly recommended.
There are, of course other reasons. For a spot-and-stalk state success rates in Washington are impressively good. Many outfitters routinely report shot opportunities in the 70- and 80 percent range during the general fall season and 100-percent during the spring hunts. Non-guided and do-it-yourself hunts are somewhat less but given sufficient time scouting and with proper timing during the peak of the berry season shot opportunities are still reasonably good.
Washington also offers an excellent opportunity at color bears. In the more open mountain regions about 50 percent of the bears are brown, blonde or cinnamon. Another factor is potential size. After nearly a quarter century of no hunting with dogs and bait bears squaring at 6 feet are nothing unusual and 7-footers quite possible. The Olympic Peninsula and western coast region in particular have much the same habitat conditions as Vancouver Island in and has become known for producing large bears.
Estimated Statewide Population: 30,000 +/-
Hunting Areas: Fall bear hunting is open in most wildlife management units in the Coastal, Puget Sound, North Cascades***, South Cascades*, Okanogan***, East Cascades, Northeastern A***, Northeastern B, Blue Mountains, Columbia Basin and Long Island** Hunt Districts. Spring hunts conducted only in specific wildlife management units.
Fall Season/Dates: Yes. August 1-September 15 in units open to hunting.
Spring Season/Dates. Yes. Open April 1 or April 15, closes May 31 or June 15 depending upon unit.
Annual Limit: Two per license year. Only one bear may be taken in Eastern Washington.
Dogs Allowed: No
Baiting Allowed: No
Popular Hunting Methods: Spot-and-stalk, calling, hunting over natural foods.
Legal Bear Weapons: Shotguns 20 gauge to 10 gauge shooting slugs or #1 or larger buckshot; centerfire rifles and handguns .24 caliber or larger; crossbows with minimum 125 pound draw and arrows at least 350 grains; compound, recurve and long bows minimum 40 pounds as full draw; muzzleloaders .45 caliber or larger. Other restrictions also apply in each category.
License Availability/Fess: Fall bear licenses over the counter and on-line. Spring bear licenses by application and draw. First and second bear license cost-Resident $24 each/Non-resident $222 each.
Contacts: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, (360) 902-2200, www.wdfw.wa.gov.
Washington Outfitters and Guides Association, (509) 997-1080, www.woga.org.
*Only hunters drawn for a quality deer or elk permit may hunt bear in some units.
**Some units archery only.
***Black Bear Identification Test required to hunt in units in these districts.