Millions of acres of bear habitat in California have suffered for years from severe droughts and wildfires. Now an influential animal welfare organization is calling for a ban on black bear hunting, at least until scientific studies prove the population is healthy.
Next month, the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets the state’s hunting regulations, will hear a petition from the Humane Society of the United States that urges the council to suspend the state’s next bear season that begins at the end of the summer.
The Humane Society disputes the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s longstanding claim that the state’s black bear population is healthy and has nearly tripled in recent decades to at least 30,000 to 40,000. animals throughout the state.
Animal welfare activists have led numerous campaigns across the country to ban hunting of various predators. But they’re taking a usual stance to make their case in California this time around.
As evidence that the bear population is likely in trouble, the group points to an increase in the number of bear hunters in California, but a decrease in the number of bears killed. These hunter “harvest” numbers play a key role in the state’s bear population estimates.
“The harm of recent wildfires to California’s bear population is currently unknown, as is the effects of hunting and poaching on California’s bear population, and the reason for such a dramatic decline in estimated population,” reads the Humane Society’s petition letter.
This is the second time in less than two years that the Humane Society has tried to ban the hunting of black bears in California, whose flag features a now extinct bear, the California grizzly bear.
Last spring, the group sponsored a bill by State Sen. Scott Wiener that would have permanently banned bear hunting statewide. At the time, Wiener’s office cited polls that showed bear hunting was unpopular among Californians.
Nonetheless, the San Francisco Democrat quickly withdrew the bill after his office was bombarded with calls and emails from state and national hunting associations that had mobilized their members to oppose the ban.
Hunters say bear populations are more than healthy enough to withstand an annual hunting season. Hunters say that contrary to claims by animal welfare activists, who view bear hunting as a cruel blood sport for trophies, hunters eat the pork meat of bears they kill with guns and archery equipment. They are legally prohibited from wasting bear meat, and hunters can be cited for shooting bears with cubs.
Additionally, hunters argue that the fees they pay to kill a few hundred bears each year are a hard-to-replace source of wildlife agency funding that benefits all species, including the vast majority of bears. bears that survive a given hunting season.
Bear hunting permits generated nearly $1.5 million in revenue last year for the state wildlife agency. The money goes into a big game management fund that supports habitat preservation.
Are bears threatened by hunting?
The way bear season in California works is that an unlimited number of licensed resident hunters are allowed to purchase a $51.02 license called a “bear tag” each hunting season.
Last year, 31,450 hunters purchased bear tags. That’s more labels sold than at any time in at least three decades, and nearly 3,700 more labels than in 2019.
If they kill a bear, hunters are required within one business day to bring the skull to a Department of Fish and Wildlife office to have the head examined by a state biologist who extracts a tooth for study. Data collected by biologists is used to help form population domains and make inferences about the overall health of the state’s bear population.
Each bear killed is included in the state harvest count. The season is immediately canceled before its end date in late December if hunters kill 1,700 bears statewide.
Bear hunters haven’t met the quota since 2012, the last year the state allowed hunters to use dogs to hunt bears in trees for the hunter to shoot. The state legislature banned the practice.
In 2021, hunters reported killing 1,186 bears. The previous year they had killed 1,028 people. This number of victims is slightly lower than the seasonal average of 1,249 bears killed since the ban on hunting with dogs in 2012.
“With so many hunters on the ground, why haven’t there been more bear deaths over the past decade? asked Wendy Keefover, the Humane Society’s senior strategist for the protection of native carnivores. “No one knows, but there might not be many bears living in the suitable bear habitats of California.”
That said, just because there are more bear hunters and they’re reporting fewer kills doesn’t mean the state’s bear population is declining, said Department of Fish biologist Jason Holley. and Wildlife. On the contrary, he said hunter hunting “trend line has been quite stable”, indicating a stable bear population.
Hunting has also grown in popularity during the pandemic. More and more hunters bought licenses and took up hunting as an excuse to get out and get away from the crowds.
Meanwhile, wildfires have closed national forests for weeks over the past two hunting seasons, meaning hunters have had fewer opportunities to find a bear. Holley said most bear tag holders also don’t target bears aggressively when they go out.
“This spike (in bear tag sales) is likely due to deer hunters saying, ‘You know what? I see more legal bears than legal cash when hunting in the wild, so might as well buy a bear tag in case I come across one,” he said.
Bear populations also appear to be doing well, Holley said, despite fires in recent years that have scorched millions of acres.
State officials estimate that in 1982 the statewide bear population was between 10,000 and 15,000 bears. Holley’s agency says the black bear population is now “conservatively estimated” at between 30,000 and 40,000 animals.
In California, bear populations have increased to the point of appearing in new areas, including places where wildfires haven’t affected their movements, Holley said.
As their range expands, bears come into conflict with people as they search for garbage, pet food, and other human-provided meals. Rising bear conflict across the state has prompted the state to hire employees to help deal with the influx of calls to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to report bear encounters. .
These types of conflicts became particularly pronounced last summer in the Tahoe region, where biologists say the population has reached some of the highest densities in the country. For years, bears have been breaking into homes in Tahoe, and attacks on people occur from time to time.
During the Caldor Fire, authorities reported a huge spike in home and vehicle break-ins and other bear encounters in the South Lake Tahoe area as it was evacuated for several days.
Meanwhile, mother bears are still regularly spotted across the state with three or even four cubs, Holley said, a sign of healthy bear habitat since the species has evolved to have fewer or no bears. cubs when food is scarce.
Fires in recent years have undoubtedly killed some bears and pushed others out of their home ranges, Holley said, but not to the extent that the few bears killed by hunters each year would harm the entire population. .
“Now, if we continue to have, you know, fire after fire after fire after fire of the kind of magnitude that we’ve had over the past couple of summers, yeah, we’re going to have to take a closer look at that and see if…. if there are any downward trends in the population,” Holley said. “But right now we don’t see it.”
Scientists debate bear population
Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis, is skeptical.
He said he thinks further study is needed, especially since the state is reporting a record number of bear kills on the side of highways, which could signal problems for bears as they are driven from their home range by forest fires and drought. .
He said he would be “surprised if the state had enough information to make an accurate estimate of the bear population,” and the statewide estimate that exists shouldn’t justify the bear hunt, which he opposes.
Instead, if hunting is to be allowed in a state as large and diverse as California, he said, it should only be allowed in specific regions where the bear population has been widely studied.
“I don’t know why you would allow anything to be hunted without knowing how many there are,” Shilling said.
But Jon Beckmann, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno, isn’t concerned that hunters are killing too many or that the fires are harming bear populations.
He has studied Tahoe Basin black bears extensively with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a research-based nonprofit. He says from what he’s seen in the field, the state’s black bear population is doing very well.
For example, in the Tahoe area, he said there are so many bears that they are about to reach their biological “carrying capacity”, which means there are almost too many. so that the habitat can support them.
“Black bears,” he said, “would be one of the least concerns for the various species in the state of California that I would have at this point.”
Fires can cause short-term losses to bear populations, but burned habitat tends to create healthier populations over the long term, said Roger Baldwin, a UC Davis biologist who has studied bears. black.
He said the fires stimulate the regrowth of berry bushes and other plants that are vital food sources for bears after emerging from hibernation in the spring.
Additionally, felled and burned wood quickly becomes loaded with larvae and termites which are a key source of protein for voracious omnivores, which can grow to over 400 pounds.
“It will be ideal habitat for the bears,” Baldwin said, “because they will get all kinds of food resources.”
The five-member Fish and Game Commission, whose members are appointed by the Governor of California, will consider the Humane Society’s petition at its meeting scheduled for February 16-17.
This story was originally published January 20, 2022 5:00 a.m.