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Animal-rights advocates say where black bears will be if hunting regulations loosened

Young black bear practicing tree climbing in preparation for future changes in the Department of Fish and Game’s bear-hunting regulations.

Young black bear practicing tree climbing in preparation for future changes in the Department of Fish and Game’s bear-hunting regulations.

California’s black bears could soon face increased pressure from hounds, hunters and bullets as officials debate whether to expand upon recreational hunting opportunities statewide. Early this year, the Department of Fish and Game proposed four options which could allow an increased annual take of bears, an expansion of legal hunting zones and permission for hunters to use GPS technology to track their hunting dogs.

The proposed changes in the regulations come partly in response to soaring numbers of black bears in California, according to DFG public information officer Harry Morse. In 1980, he said, 10,000 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, said Morse.

Though one of the four proposals would result in no change at all to current bear hunting laws, another possibility—and DFG’s preferred option—would remove the current season limit of 1,700 bears and place no limit on the number of tags available for purchase. Under this 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 notice is sent to all hunters owning bear tags.

“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 Marc Kenyon, the DFG’s statewide black bear coordinator. Kenyon adds that an average of 25,000 hunters buy bear tags in California each year. Of these, roughly 7 percent successfully hunt a bear, resulting in a kill rate well below the estimated sustainable maximum of 3,100. To remove the season-ending notification process, say DFG officials, would save substantial costs.

Opponents of the proposed amendments worry that California bear numbers are not adequately understood and that bear populations could suffer in certain areas. Attorney Bill Yeates of Kenyon Yeates, LLP, which represents several clients opposed to the proposed changes, alleges that the Department of Fish and Game 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 under some of the proposed changes, could be particularly vulnerable. “[DFG biologist] have no real information on bear numbers in San Luis Obispo County,” he said.

But an increase in bears struck by cars, in depredation permits sought against nuisance bears and in general sightings indicate that San Luis Obispo County has a “more than adequate huntable population” of black bears, according to Morse.

The proposed amendments, which are being considered by the five-member Fish and Game Commission, could also open parts of Lassen, Modoc and Inyo counties to black bear hunting as well as 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 the 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, which formally opposes the proposed regulation changes. Other opponents 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 their dogs, has cited dog safety as the objective of the proposed allowance, 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.”

The Fish and Game Commission will decide what proposed amendments to implement on April 21 at a meeting in Monterey. Any new regulations could go into effect later this year. Bear season opens in the fall.