Citing wildfires, animal welfare activists petition California officials to stop bear hunting
SACRAMENTO— Millions of acres of California's bear habitat have suffered years of severe drought and wildfires. Now, an influential animal welfare organization is calling for a ban on black bear hunting, at least until scientific studies can prove the population is healthy.
Next month, the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets state hunting regulations, will hear a petition from the Humane Society of the United States that urges the board to suspend the state's upcoming bear season that begins in late summer.
The Humane Society is challenging the Department of Fish and Wildlife's long-standing assertion the state's black bear population is healthy and has nearly tripled in recent decades to at least 30,000 to 40,000 animals statewide.
The animal welfare activists have led numerous campaigns around the country to ban hunting of various predators. But they are taking an usual position to make their case in California this time around.
As proof the bear population is likely in trouble, the group points to California's increase in the number of bear hunters, but a decrease in the number of bears being killed. Those hunter "harvest" numbers play a key role in state bear population estimates.
"The harms from the recent wildfires on California's bear population are currently unknown, as are the effects of hunting and poaching on California's bear population, and the reason behind such a dramatic decline in the estimated population," the Humane Society's petition letter reads.
It's the second time in less than two years that the Humane Society has tried to ban black bear hunting in California, whose state flag features a now-extinct bear, the California grizzly.
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 polling that showed bear hunting is 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 argue that bear populations are more than healthy enough to withstand an annual hunting season. The hunters say that contrary to claims by animal welfare activists, who frame bear hunting as a cruel bloodsport for trophies, hunters eat the porklike meat from bears they kill with rifles and archery equipment. They're legally forbidden from wasting bear meat, and hunters can be cited for shooting female bears with cubs.
Plus, hunters contend the fees they pay to kill a few hundred bears each year provide a hard-to-replace source of wildlife-agency funding that's used to benefit all species — including the vast majority of bears that survive a given hunting season.
Bear hunting permits generated nearly $1.5 million in revenue last year for the state's wildlife agency. The money goes into a big game management fund that supports habitat preservation.
Are bears threatened by hunting?
The way California's bear season works is that an unlimited number of licensed resident hunters are allowed to buy one $51.02 permit known as a "bear tag" each hunting season.
Last year, 31,450 hunters bought bear tags. That's more tags sold than any time in at least three decades, and nearly 3,700 more tags than were sold 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. The data the biologists collect is used to help form population estates and to make inferences about the overall health of the state's bear population.
Each killed bear is included in the state's harvest tally. The season is immediately canceled before its late December end date if hunters kill 1,700 bears statewide.
Bear hunters haven't hit the quota since 2012, the last year the state allowed hunters to use dogs to chase bears up trees for the hunter to shoot. The state Legislature banned the practice.
In 2021, hunters reported killing 1,186 bears. The year before, they killed 1,028. Those kill counts are slightly below the seasonal average of 1,249 bears killed since the 2012 ban on hunting with dogs.
"With so many hunters in the field, why weren't there more dead bears in the last decade?" asked Wendy Keefover, a Humane Society senior strategist for native carnivore protection. "No one knows, but it could be that there are not many bears living in California's suitable bear habitats."
That said, just because there are more bear hunters and they're reporting fewer kills, that doesn't mean the state's bear population is shrinking, said Jason Holley, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. If anything, he said the hunter kill "trend line has been pretty steady" indicating a stable bear population.