The California Fish and Game Commission will consider a statewide ban on bobcat trapping this week, a proposal that has reignited debate over wildlife protections and the power of regulatory agencies.
In 2013, the state Legislature tasked the commission with developing buffer zones around national parks, state parks and other wildlife areas in California where bobcat trapping would be prohibited. That plan is up for consideration at a meeting on Wednesday.
But language in Assembly Bill 1213 allowing the commission to “impose additional requirements, restrictions, or prohibitions related to the taking of bobcats” has resulted in a second option that would expand the ban across California, with an exception for “depredation trapping” to protect against animals destroying property. Hunting would be unaffected.
Opponents charge that the Fish and Game Commission is stepping well beyond its duty to implement the spirit of the law.
“It’s real simple: There was a bill before the Legislature to ban the bobcat trapping that didn’t pass. You don’t need much more clarity than that to know what the Legislature was OK with,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. “For a regulatory body to go out and basically go against the role of the Legislature is inappropriate.”
The commission says it has not exceeded its authority.
“They’ve given us a pretty broad box in which to work,” Executive Director Sonke Mastrup said.
AB 1213 began as an outright ban on bobcat trapping in California. Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, argued that a sharp increase in the international trade in bobcat pelts had put the animals at risk.
Trapping tripled between 2009 and 2012, according to a legislative analysis.
According to a bill analysis, trapping tripled between 2009 and 2012, with an estimated 1,299 bobcats killed in the 2011-12 hunting season, compared with 457 in the 2009-10 season. During that time, the average price for a pelt jumped to $700 from $78.
“I am deeply concerned about the status of bobcats in California,” Bloom said at a 2013 hearing of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “Current California law treats this important species with little regard, allowing unlimited take by trappers who commercialize California wildlife, converting wild animals into fashion coats.”
But Bobcats, Mastrup said, are not an endangered species. He said “there is no circumstantial evidence that we are impacting bobcat population” through trapping, which has been legal in California for more than a century and, at its peak decades ago, saw more than 20,000 killed annually.
Facing opposition from the fur and agriculture industries, which argued that a ban would create significant economic harm, lawmakers settled on the compromise bill to reinforce protections in areas where bobcat trapping was already prohibited.
In his signing message, Gov. Jerry Brown instructed his administration to conduct a bobcat population survey, which the commission could use to “consider setting population thresholds and bobcat trapping tag limitations in its upcoming rule making.”
As the Fish and Game Commission began work on the regulations earlier this year, animal rights advocates mounted a “ban the trap” campaign to push for statewide restrictions. Following passionate testimony at a public meeting in Santa Rosa in April, the commission added the second option for consideration, Mastrup said.
“There’s really no biological justification for a ban,” he said. “The emotional and moral arguments are behind that proposal.”
Bloom has taken the opportunity to again push for a trapping prohibition. Joined by 12 other Democratic lawmakers, he sent a letter to the commission in July promoting the statewide ban as the most “economically and ecologically sensible option for implementing the provisions of AB 1213.”
1,299 The number of bobcats killed by trapping in the 2011-12 hunting season
Trappers and farmers express frustration that social and political considerations are winning out over science. They point out that the bobcat population survey has yet to be undertaken.
“No money has been requested; no research has been done,” California Trappers Association spokesman Hector Barajas said. “How do you have a commission that can go out there and do whatever it wants to do?”
Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities at the California Farm Bureau Federation, said ranchers want to make sure they have the ability to protect their animals. Even though depredation trapping would still be allowed under a statewide ban, it could result in a shortage of trappers with the skill to kill bobcats.
“If people understood how healthy the population is, there would be less pressure,” she added.
Other objections continue to mount. In July, 23 Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the commission arguing that the buffer zones it developed are prohibitively large and would effectively amount to a ban on bobcat trapping. They urged the commission to reject both options and head back to the drawing board.
Mastrup said that is a possibility at Wednesday’s meeting: “The commission’s job is to listen to the public testimony and decide what’s the right solution here.”
But for some, it remains a cautionary tale of California regulatory bodies going unchecked.
“One of the real detriments of term limits has been that one branch of government has far exceeded its jurisdiction,” Gray said. “The Legislature has so much constant turnover that no one’s there to hold folks accountable.”
Jeremy B. White of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.