Animal advocates and Department of Fish and Game at odds over proposed changes to hunting California black bears
When state officials were overwhelmed early this month by thousands of public comments opposing a proposal to allow California hunters to shoot unlimited numbers of black bears each fall, the five-member voting panel of the California Fish and Game Commission temporarily shelved the matter for later review.
Other proposed—and controversial—changes to bear-hunting regulations were likewise set aside at the meeting, held April 21 in Monterey, and while animal-rights activists are temporarily relieved, the four proposed amendments will be considered again next week at a public meeting in Stockton.
The proposal to increase sport-hunting opportunities statewide has come partly in response to a soaring population of the bears in California, according to Harry Morse, public information officer with the California Department of Fish and Game. In 1980, Morse says, 10,000 black bears roamed the state’s woodlands. Today, 38,000 live statewide, and the frequency of car-bear collisions, cabin break-ins, and other damage as bears enter populated areas seeking food have escalated, says Morse.
More than mitigating bear-human conflicts, however, the proposals have been designed simply to offer increased opportunity for hunters to kill bears, according to Mark Kenyon, the DFG’s statewide black bear coordinator.
To Jennifer Fearing, California’s senior director of The Humane Society of the United States, such an objective seems a betrayal of public interest.
“People in California generally think bear hunting is an anachronism,” said Fearing, who added that at least 10,000 public letters voicing opposition to the proposed regulation changes flooded the Fish and Game Commission’s staff prior to their April meeting. “We don’t believe the state needs to be using a public, natural resource in this way to increase opportunities for a select, niche group of trophy hunters.”
Though one of the four proposals considered by the Fish and Game Commission in Monterey two weeks ago would result in no change at all to current bear hunting laws, another possibility would remove the current season limit of 1,700 bears and place no limit on the number of tags available for purchase. Under this liberal set of regulations the annual black bear harvest could potentially exceed sustainable levels, though historical data suggest that such an outcome is unlikely, say Morse and other DFG officials.
Currently, bear season in California ends either on the last Sunday in December or as soon as hunters report 1,700 bears killed, at which point the DFG sends notice to all hunters owning bear tags that the season has ended.
“But if you look at the last 30 years of bear hunting in California, our end-season closure mechanism often isn’t even necessary because hunters often don’t reach the 1,700-bear limit,” said Kenyon.
In the past seven years, he said, that cap has been met only three times. When hunters do reach the limit, though, the end-season mechanism may fail to work as intended, as happened in 2008. That fall, according to DFG records, hunters reported 1,700 bears taken weeks prior to the last Sunday in December, but by the time the DFG had notified hunters that the season was closed, 300 additional bears were reported killed, resulting in a total harvest of 2,028, the highest ever recorded in a long steady trend of increasing annual kills. To remove the relatively ineffective season-ending notification process—as one of the proposals would do—would save substantial costs, according to DFG officials.
Currently, there is no limit to the number of bear tags that may be purchased each year by licensed hunters, and every year about 25,000 hunters buy bear tags. Only seven percent on average successfully hunt a bear, according to DFG records, resulting in an annual kill rate well below the estimated sustainable maximum of 3,100. DFG biologists believe that, if all limits are removed, the difficulties inherent to hunting will act as a natural barrier against hunters exceeding sustainable kill levels.
Opponents of the proposed amendments have expressed concern that California bear numbers are not sufficiently understood and that bear populations could suffer in certain areas if subjected to increased hunting pressure. Attorney Bill Yeates of Kenyon Yeates, LLP, which represents several clients opposed to the proposed changes, alleges that DFG has not adequately analyzed the state’s population of black bears.
“They’re taking this from a statewide perspective and assuming that black bears occupy bear habitat uniformly throughout California,” said Yeates, who believes that hunters might focus their efforts on particular regions and adversely impact local bears. He believes the black bears of San Luis Obispo County, where hunting could become legal, could be particularly vulnerable.
The proposed amendments could also open parts of Lassen, Modoc and Inyo counties to black-bear hunting. Another proposed amendment would allow hunters to place advanced GPS tracking devices on their dogs. The devices in question respond to different forms of motion and send corresponding signals to the hunter, who keeps a receiver in hand. When dogs tree a bear, their heads tend to remain elevated. The GPS device detects this posture and beams a message to the hunter indicating that the bear has been treed.
“The hunters can literally sit back in their car and wait, and then go shoot the bear when it’s in the tree,” said Nicole Paquette, senior policy adviser with The Humane Society of the United States. Other opponents to the regulation amendments include Big Wildlife and Los Padres ForestWatch.
The California Houndsmen for Conservation, which has urged the state to allow the use of GPS tracking devices on dogs, has cited dog safety as the objective, and the DFG’s Morse points out that GPS technology would not necessarily make hunting any easier.
“This wouldn’t increase hunters’ ability to kill bears,” he said. “It would just improve their ability to find their dogs later.”
But Paquette calls the proposed changes to the regulations “nothing more than an effort by trophy hunters to gain more access to black bears.”