State wildlife managers plan to revamp their black bear management plan almost 13 years later than they were required to and under the threat of a lawsuit from an Applegate Valley-based group that wants sport-hunting suspended until the plan is done.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists expect to hold public meetings and add new research from the department and outside entities while crafting a plan that Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission rules consider past-due since 1998.
The group Big Wildlife in mid-November filed notice that it intends to sue the agency for failing to update the plan, just weeks after ODFW Wildlife Division Administrator Ron Anglin said his agency began discussing its revision.
The plan was set for revision in the early 2000s, but the commission shelved it in favor of plans for black-tailed deer, cougar and other animals, Anglin said.
"It's now one of the highest priorities," Anglin said. "By the end of next year at the latest, we'll be in front of the commission with a plan for final adoption."
Big Wildlife Program Director Spencer Lennard said the new plan should be much less hunter-oriented and that the general public would rather see a more "cautious" approach that reduces bear killing in sport seasons as well as for damage and nuisances.
Lennard said letting the plan's update lag so long is "not respectful to wildlife and the public," and he believes the ODFW should pull back bear killing until it can craft new science into its plan.
"I'd love it if the sport-hunting seasons were suspended while a good plan is done," Lennard said. "I doubt that's going to happen. But I think that would be a prudent thing."
Anglin said his agency has no plans to curtail bear hunting during the planning process.
Oregon sells about 30,000 bear tags annually, with about 1,700 bears killed statewide during the spring and fall hunting seasons, according to ODFW statistics. The ODFW estimates Oregon to be home to 20,000 to 30,000 bears.
The ODFW uses management plans to guide management of specific wildlife species and they set population goals and spell out myriad other goals for the animals. They must be adopted by the commission before being put into use.
For years, Big Wildlife and other wildlife advocacy groups have been critical of the agency's management strategies for top predators such as bears and cougars, saying the state's liberal hunting policies and laws allowing the killing of nuisance animals are out of step with Oregon's public at large.
Anglin said he and other ODFW biologists were discussing how to embark on the bear plan in October and even decided two days before the suit notice reached them that they would like to conduct a public-opinion survey about bears before writing a draft of the plan.
The new plan will incorporate new studies and procedures since the plan's last update, Anglin said. That would include the ODFW's annual mark-and-recapture study to estimate bear populations, which remain fairly steady and healthy, he said.
"Nothing would indicate to us that we're running short on bears anywhere," Anglin said.
Lennard said he believes recent spikes in hunter-killed bears in southwestern and Eastern Oregon could suggest a species under duress.
"The numbers don't necessarily mean there are more animals," he said. "It could be that there are less, they're having a hard time and they're stressed."
Lennard also said he would like to see Oregon end its policies that allow killing of damage- or nuisance-causing bears without a permit. Anglin said, however, that the provision is in state statute and would have to be changed through the Oregon Legislature.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.