A press release from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife announcing the Jan. 6-7 meeting of the Fish & Wildlife Commission may have inadvertently vindicated long-time critics of this state’s Resource Allocation-based hunting regulations.
Resource Allocation is the regulatory structure that has been in place for more than 25 years in the Evergreen State that requires hunters to choose between modern firearms, black powder or archery for hunting deer and elk, and not be able to hunt alternate seasons to increase their time afield and boost their odds of notching a tag. Critics say it has resulted in loss of substantial opportunity for hunters, pitted user groups against one another as they compete for a smaller piece of a shrinking pie, and some argue convincingly it has been a contributing factor in the loss of tens of thousands of hunters from the ranks. Some have quit, others have gone elsewhere to spend their recreational money. They may have a point.
According to hunting license data from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in 1983, the year before Washington adopted Resource Allocation, the state reported 311,155 certified paid hunting license holders. In 1984, there were 307,704 paid license holders. In 1985, that number declined to 298,193 hunters. By 1990, there was a noticeable decline to 268,653 licensees. In 1995, the number bumped back up to a healthy 305,502 hunters, but the following year hunter numbers plummeted to 252,933. The decline continued, as 235,477 paid hunting license holders were reported to the USFWS for 1997 and five years later, in 2002, the decline was even worse, to 198,162 hunters. A check Thursday found USFWS reporting 194,308 paid hunting license holders in its most recent available data. That’s a loss of more than 116,000 paid hunting license holders, and millions of dollars in revenue from license and tag sales, and funds from the Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act, which observes its 75th anniversary in 2012.
While it would be foolish to blame the decline entirely on Resource Allocation, the numbers suggest Washington State has a serious problem, probably several problems. Shorter seasons across the board for all user groups, adjusted season dates that virtually guarantee a lower harvest, especially for Eastern Washington elk, antler point restrictions on elk and mule deer, and this year for whitetail bucks in two popular northeast units; all are likely contributing factors.
The commission will gather to “focus on hunting permits.” Four paragraphs into this announcement, the WDFW observes:
Multiple-season hunting permits allow selected hunters to hunt for deer or elk during all general hunting seasons, rather than having to choose among archery, muzzleloader or modern firearm seasons. Hunting data show that the wider range of options increases hunters’ chance of success in the field.
That’s a “Well, DUH!” kind of acknowledgement for which bureaucrats are famous across the landscape. WDFW critics might suggest that the agency may as well admit that Resource Allocation reduces the chance of success, and subsequently has reduced agency revenue. Many hunters quietly believe that the plan all along was to drive them out of the woods. Rather than admit the error, the agency has adopted this strategy: Provide a permit hunting opportunity for a limited number of hunters, rather than scrap Resource Allocation altogether. Yet, this does signal a gradual retreat toward the old structure.
WDFW has proposed increasing the number multiple-season hunting permits available each year to 8,500 deer permits and 1,250 elk permits. In 2011, WDFW conducted a drawing for 4,000 deer permits and 850 elk permits from among the hunters who paid an application fee.
In years past, all Washington hunters could enjoy hunting the general season, probably with their kids (giving them the first shot at game, naturally) and then hunt a later season if they still had a tag to notch. Black powder and archery hunting was still an option.
That changed with Resource Allocation, pushed primarily by very vocal special interest folks who figured they would get more time afield with a lot less competition. It was sold on the presumption that general season overcrowding would be reduced when hunters opted for the alternate seasons, which were made longer to be more attractive, thus spreading the crowds. At the time it seemed like a good idea to a number of people.
Over the years, those alternate seasons have been gradually shrinking. As the numbers above reveal, legions of hunters have simply stopped buying Washington licenses.
Now comes the clincher; an acknowledgement that agency critics have long maintained:
State wildlife managers say increasing those permit levels will not pose a risk to Washington wildlife, adding that fees generated by applicants for a higher number of permits would be used to expand efforts to prevent property damage caused by wildlife.
Translation: Allowing more hunters to participate in alternate seasons provides more revenue to the cash-strapped agency, for whatever purpose, and will not significantly hurt the game resource. Opening the opportunity back to all hunters would provide even more income, and it might also eliminate constant fighting between user groups, except for a minority of elitists who selfishly want the forests all to themselves. Instead of fighting with one another, these hunters could unite once again and focus on holding the WDFW accountable for improved hunting opportunities, larger and healthier game herds, more aggressive enforcement against poachers, and perhaps a more aggressive approach to alleged abuses by tribal hunters.
In addition, there could be a stronger, more united push to restore hound hunting for mountain lions and black bears, to reduce what many believe has become a serious predation problem.
As 2012 looms, Washington hunters are growing alarmed about a new potential threat to game herd health: Wolves.
According to the Washington State Deer Management Plan, Page 8, there is good reason for alarm:
Estimates in the WDFW Draft Wolf Conservation and Management Plan (WDFW 2009) suggest that, if they were only preying on deer, wolves may kill and consume 44 deer per wolf per year. In Washington, wolves will likely rely primarily on elk and moose; in areas with few or no elk, deer will likely serve as primary prey, as is the case with the Okanogan/Chelan area.
Multiply, say, 500 wolves (from which there would be 15 identifiable breeding pairs, as required under the recently-adopted wolf management plan) by 44. That’s 22,000 deer, more than the number of mule deer or whitetails annually taken by licensed hunters during a season. That number doesn’t include elk, moose, caribou known to be in far Northeast Washington, or livestock. That is over and above the number of game animals already being killed by cougars, coyotes and bears.
Hunters are likely to start quizzing legislative candidates about their views on wildlife management. It could become an issue in the gubernatorial contest as well. Washington has had Democrats in the governor’s office for more than 25 years; Democrats who have appointed members of the Wildlife Commission, and in turn they hire the WDFW director and set seasons and policy.
For hunters tired of camping with guns and going home empty-handed, and worried about further reductions in opportunity, this may be the year to turn back the clock to a time with more opportunity and longer seasons. That could bring more hunters back to the field, produce more revenue for the cash-strapped agency and convince angry sportsmen that, perhaps, the commission is on their side for a change. Instead of elk herds hanging around winter feed lots, they would be hanging in meat lockers.
It could put more pressure on the WDFW to “deliver the goods,” which many hunters believe the agency hasn’t been doing for far too long.
On the other hand, this column could be entirely mistaken about all of this. Readers can comment below.
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