HW Braham: For whom do we manage wildlife?

By H. W. Braham

By H. W. Braham

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 in March to “… not establish a 2022 spring black bear special permit season.” The reason, in part, included “process,” “definitions” and the rationale for the hunt. Two key issues emerged on the uncertainty of data and the “ethics” of why the hunt shouldn’t be conducted for “… valuable recreational opportunities.” Listening to the discussion, I think the vote was simply a stopgap for a broader effort to readdress the issue later, based on the commission’s directive to “assess a path forward” by this month. I am looking forward to seeing what the WDFW comes up with under such a short deadline.

The path forward seems clear: Where uncertainty exists, any analyzes should assess whether the uncertainty is justified and then how to correct it. When viewed as conflict management, issues of uncertainty associated with recreation, conservation, personal and property safety, and politics, stand out as the chief issues in at least the black bear controversy but can also apply to other issues in which predators are involved (eg , sea lions vs. salmon or wolves vs. livestock). But it’s hard to reconcile why killing bears – because they sometimes prey on deer and elk fawn – turns into a recreational hunt (“opportunities”). I’ve always been under the impression that recreation is doing something for fun. How is killing a bear for fun viewed as recreation? Accordingly, my take on the discussions in March and thereafter – broadly speaking – is that there may still be one controversial impediment to the commission’s progress on such issues; that is, “for whom do we manage wildlife?”

Considering uncertainty, if history has shown us anything it’s when critical parameters are missing or unclear (and unpredictable, such as weather and climate, habitat encroachment and fragmentation, or population biology), then caution in setting hunting “limits” is preferred if not essential . This so-called precautionary principle – a “best practice” helping to ensure that wildlife populations are neither undermanaged nor overused – was, ostensibly, used by both sides of the spring bear hunt debate to defend their vote. Work on clarifying uncertainty therefore will be essential and might serve as a model for whether conservation and recreational hunting of predators can overcome seemingly immutable objectivity. So where do ethics fit with objectivity when there is uncertainty? Fortunately, there is more.

Even if the precautionary principle doesn’t leave much room for compromise, decision-making is seldom binary. I don’t think a decision to remove wildlife from any population should boil down to a question of ethics unless the objective is to allow hunting in the absence of conservation – an untenable notion. If our mission is to maintain long-term viable populations, then we must ensure that what we protect is what we at least have left. Including maintaining a “healthy” hunting culture.

During the meetings, a voice was heard to say “to withhold a spring hunt for black bears is a violation of ethics because recreational hunting is a stated agency mission.” I don’t see how ethics has any standing in managing a recreational hunt, and so I view this as an opinion. The second, less pedantic yet interesting view, is “public opinion.” Should we be setting policy based primarily on what the public majority wants? Failing the personal philosophical, or “politics as usual” test – generally not based on facts or experience – I view public “opinion” as just that. The third constraint is the precautionary principle. If decision-makers are not sure or believe clarity is required before a vote on policy, then would it not be a violation of one’s “ethical” responsibility to abstain, or vote “no” based on that uncertainty?

Uncertainty reigns without high-quality, long-term population and ecological data: good public policy should demand it. So, in a rapidly changing world, humans are resourceful, wildlife not so much. The best way to reduce uncertainty then is to provide the resources needed to meet the demands of the public – in this case, the wildlife commission. In today’s egocentric society, our behavior bends toward, “What can you do for me now?” – but future generations are depending on us to do our best for them, too.

Howard W. Braham was a scientist, small business owner and policy adviser, serving public and private interests for 41 years. He focuses on wildlife conflict management and law enforcement reform controversies and lives in Spokane Valley.

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