First, they stopped mountain lion hunting. Period. Now, they’re aiming to outlaw the age-old tradition of hunting bears and bobcats with hounds. They tried to stop this form of hunting twice before—in 1993 and again in 2003. The cycle returns.
As goes California … so many of us in the nation dread … goes the rest of the country.
Presently, Senate Bill 1221 is working its way through the California Legislature. Proposed by Sen. Ted Lieu and Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, and with the weight of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) behind it, this bill would outlaw the use of dogs for hunting bears and bobcats in California.
That’s not all it does, though. The bill would also allow the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to capture and even destroy a hunting dog if it is deemed to be pursuing or threatening a bear or bobcat at any time, without reparation to its owner. However, under the bill, federal, state and local law enforcement officials would still be allowed to use dogs to pursue bears and bobcats “when carrying out official duties as required by law.”
Currently, houndsmen and women may not allow their dogs to pursue game during closed seasons, and, of course, their dogs may not chase endangered or otherwise protected animals at any time.
In late April, the state Senate Natural Resources Committee heard both sides of the subject. Nearly 700 supporters of hunting with hounds and approximately 65 opponents attended. Attending the meeting to lobby against hunting with hounds was Melinda Willey. “I’ve got to tell you, when it was the hunters’ time to come into the room ... I started crying,” Willey told the Mount Shasta Herald. “I felt it deeply ... these are people whom get pleasure from killing God’s creatures.”
On the other side, Bob Cogburn traveled to the capitol with other Siskiyou County houndsmen and women to lobby against the bill. Siskiyou County typically touts the state’s largest bear harvest. According to reporter Skye Kincaide in the Mount Shasta Herald, “Cogburn said using dogs allows the hunter to make better decisions when harvesting a bear, because they can be sure they don’t have cubs. Most of the time, Cogburn said, the bears are left alone after they have treed.” Cogburn also pointed out the obvious benefits that hunting brings to his county’s businesses. It is not reported if he cried.
The committee voted 5-3 to send the measure to the Appropriations Committee, where, despite formal opposition from the Department of Finance that conservatively estimated an annual loss of $400,000 in license and tag revenues, it was passed by a partisan vote. It now awaits a full vote on the Senate floor.
The latest estimate (hunt-year 2009) places California’s bear population at 31,432. It’s important to note that this number only estimates the number of bears in zones where they can currently be hunted. The statewide bear population, the DFG says, is likely closer to 40,000 bears.
The DFG reported that 1,503 bears were killed in 2010, down 20 percent from 2009. Forty-five percent of the bears killed in 2010 were taken by houndsmen. DFG attributes the 2010 decline to early snow, road closures, and the prohibitively high cost of fuel, not a decline in bear numbers. The unofficial 2011 bear harvest was 1,672.
As for bobcats, there are an estimated 70,000 of them in California. About 11 percent of the bobcats killed in California in 2011 were killed with the use of dogs.
Its backing of SB 1221 is not the first time HSUS has attempted to influence bear hunting in California. In 2009 and 2010, DFG tried to open bear hunting in San Luis Obispo County and increase the statewide bear quota. Population figures supported DFG’s proposals, but they were withdrawn each year after encountering anti-hunting backlash. In 2011, DFG simply proposed upping the harvest quota from the current 1,700-bear limit to 2,000. That proposal was also aborted after HSUS objected.
Asked about these failed proposals, Jordan Traverso, DFG Deputy Director of Communications, Education and Outreach, said, “Public interest in these proposals was high, as was media coverage, both pro and con. DFG determined that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) issues related to the proposals were substantial. Consequently, we withdrew the proposals each time, and instead have made a conscious decision to focus on bringing our black bear management plan up to date. A significant component of developing this plan will involve stakeholder and public input. There is no question that there are polarizing viewpoints in the public on black bear hunting.”
According to the state’s website, CEQA is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.
Josh P. Brones, president of California Houndsmen for Conservation (CHC), described CEQA as a “monster,” responsible for stopping several legitimate amendments to the state’s hunting regulations simply because of the state’s concern that failing to meet just one of the law’s many onerous and confusing stipulations would subject DFG to litigation.
“The role of hunting and fishing is becoming increasingly marginalized in this state,” said Brones, a hunter from Northern California. Despite this, he said that houndsmen are relied upon by the DFG and the University of California for bear and mountain lion research because the use of hounds is a preferred method of capture due the low risk of injury to the animal.
Brones, who has been at the table with representatives from HSUS, said he educated them about trophy hunting—what is and what isn’t. In an anecdote, he described how an HSUS representative thought deer hunting was not trophy hunting because you eat the meat. But, she claimed bear hunting was trophy hunting because you don’t eat the meat. Her ignorance shines through. In California, a law prohibiting what is known as “wanton waste” requires that the meat not be wasted, so bear hunters either eat the meat or give it to someone who appreciates it.
“Hunters are this nation’s foremost conservationists,” Brones noted.
He pointed to a recent Bear Awareness Campaign intended to educate the residents and visitors of the Lake Tahoe Basin regarding the importance of securing trash, food and other items in order to reduce the risk of confrontations with the region’s thriving bear population. CHC took DFG staff on a two-day bear hunt where two bears were treed and then filmed and photographed in order to provide high school students with material to be used for public safety awareness commercials. The commercials were part of a DFG contest, and CHC funded all of the cash prizes for the winning submissions.
“At no time did HSUS or any other anti-hunting organization spend so much as one dollar on this important conservation and public outreach program,” said Brones.
Brones stated adamantly that houndsmen and women support the role of science in wildlife management, even if doing so results in a reduced amount of tags.
He added, “It is reasonable to be concerned about the role of HSUS as a stakeholder.”
Asked directly if hunters in California need to be concerned that anti-hunting organizations are gaining a foothold in the DFG and influencing wildlife management, Traverso responded: “As a state agency, we serve all Californians—both hunters and non-hunters. We consider the viewpoints of all interested parties as we formulate recommendations to the Fish and Game Commission. We are also mandated by certain state-specific laws to develop a range of alternatives that can reasonably meet the objectives of any recommendations we submit to the Commission. We rely upon the best available science to develop the recommendations and alternatives. To do any less would be a disservice to our constituents. Ultimately, the decisions are made by the Fish and Game Commission.”
In an April 2010 story in the publication Western Outdoor News, Traverso reiterated that DFG counts animal rights groups among its constituents.
While Traverso does say that DFG serves hunters (and non-hunters, too), nowhere in her comments do we hear her mention the value and importance of hunters to DFG, which is odd considering the anti-hunting rumors that have swirled around the department of late. And if science is indeed paramount, as Traverso asserts, then why were three prior attempts to expand bear hunting pulled when the science supported them?
At this point Brones and other hunters are watching closely to see where their “stake” is and exactly how much it’s worth.
Because if recent history is any indication, anti-hunters are being heard loud and clear, while the voice of the hunting community is getting lost in the crowd.