Hunters killed fewer bears in California in 2013 than during any other year in the last two decades, a trend that many agree is a direct consequence of a new law that bans hunters from using dogs to track bears.
California has a sometimes-complicated relationship with its roughly 33,000 bears. They are a beloved symbol of the state’s rugged history; they are a nuisance to some residents who live where development meets the forest; they are a source of excitement and sport to those who hunt. And they can be a cause for worry to state officials trying to minimize bear attacks on humans.
Into that mix of conflicting sentiments came the new law. Carried by state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, it passed in late 2012 and went into effect in 2013.
Supporters of the ban said it prohibited an unsportsmanlike, cruel practice. They portrayed that practice as essentially allowing hunters to stroll up to bears trapped by hounds to make easy kills. They also noted that dogs can be overwhelmed and hurt by bears during the hunt.
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Opponents pointed to the long history of hounding and said it was a reasonable way to control the bear population and reduce attacks on people. Using hounds, they said, allows hunters to kill cornered bears cleanly – fewer slow deaths from poor shots – and prevents accidental shootings of mothers caring for cubs.
Both sides, along with state officials, agree that the law largely explains the drop in bears killed by hunters last year.
In 2012, hunters killed 1,962 bears. In 2013, according to preliminary state figures, hunters killed 1,002 bears – a 48 percent decline.
“The inability to use dogs this season produced a decrease,” said Jesse Garcia, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Some of those who had used dogs to hunt bears in the past “didn’t bother” to hunt this year, Garcia said.
Well-trained hounds make it easier for hunters to find bears. The hounds often wear electronic tracking devices that let their owners know their location. When hunters see a group of dogs clumped together or hear a chorus of howls, it’s an indication that they’ve cornered a bear or trapped one in a tree.
Without hounds, luck plays a larger role. The number of “bear tags” authorizing hunters to kill bears did not decrease as dramatically in 2013 as the number of bears killed, suggesting some hunters may have been unsuccessful without their hounds.
“If you are just up there walking and driving, the chances of seeing a bear are slim to none,” said Lori Jacobs, president of California Houndsmen for Conservation, which has more than 1,000 members. She did not hunt bear this year because of the new law and said most of her members didn’t, either.
The debate – and the lower number of bears killed – could have consequences broader than the ethical ramifications of using hounds. Human-bear conflicts have been an increasing problem as residential communities have expanded into mountain and foothill forests. Bear attacks, while rare, are more likely after bears are conditioned to receive food from human sources.
Hunting advocates say the impact of hunters killing fewer bears will be swift: More bears, more conflict, more harm.
“You’re going to start having property damage, people killed,” Jacobs said. “The black-bear population in California is already out of control.”
Dan Tichenor, a longtime houndsman and Bay Area resident, noted that bears will move if resources are scarce. A black bear’s range can extend 10 square miles or further. A growing bear population, he said, pushes some bears to seek food from humans, which raises the potential for conflict.
“Bears are moving into all sorts of places,” he said. “Immediately, there will be more human-bear interactions as a result” of declining bear kills.
Lieu, the state senator who carried the hound-ban bill, called that argument “ridiculous.”
“There are over 30,000 bears in California,” Lieu said. “The question here has no chance to impact (the size of) the bear population.”
Rick Hopkins, a conservation biologist who was commissioned by the Humane Society to study the impact of a hounding ban, said hunters generally kill bears far from residential development. Bears are most often hunted and killed in remote parts of the northern reaches of California. A decrease in bears killed in those areas won’t affect the number of bears sneaking into Tahoe communities or Yosemite campsites.
“It shouldn’t make any difference at all,” Hopkins said. “Sport harvest has almost no effect on the number of conflicts.”
The best way to protect both bears and humans, state officials say, is for people to secure their trash and keep bears from eating human food. But the size of the state’s bear population matters, too, said Garcia, the state wildlife official.
State Fish and Wildlife officials estimate that the number of bears in California has roughly doubled in the last 30 years, growing by 15,000. Animal-rights advocates say the growth has been slower and that the department’s figures have a high margin of error.
Garcia does not believe one slow year for bear hunters will increase conflicts between bears and humans. But if the number of kills remains low for several years, “it would make a difference in greater growth of the bear population,” he said. “At minimum, as people move into bear habitat, the potential for bear-human conflict increases.”
Although the law banning hounding is in the books, the issue is likely not dead. Jacobs said her group is working with a legislator to introduce a bill overturning the ban. The decline in bears killed is expected to be a focal point of the debate.
The bear-hunting season runs each year from August until there are 1,700 bears reported taken or until the last Sunday in December, whichever comes first.
Based on previous years, the 2013 hunting tally of 1,002 will probably rise by between 200 and 300 bears as late reports of kills trickle into state regulators. But no other hunting season since the early 1990s has resulted in fewer than 1,400 bears killed by hunters, state figures show.
Lieu predicted the lull in bear kills would be temporary. “Over time, hunters will simply take bears without using hounds,” he said.
Tichenor, the longtime houndsman, said it’s not that simple. The joy of hunting with hounds, he said, is more about training and nurturing dogs than it is about killing bears.
“Many of us that hunt bear with hounds could get one without a hound,” he said. “We just aren’t that interested.”