California hunters claim victory in bear hunt battle

Hunters and conservationists across the country are celebrating after attempts to ban black bear hunting in California failed for the second year in a row.

In a 4-0 vote during an April 21 meeting, members of the California Fish and Game Commission voted to reject a petition by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that sought to eliminate hunting of bears throughout the Golden State.

For years, the HSUS has championed the belief that California’s black bear populations are in the midst of precipitous decline. They point to climate change, increased wildfire activity, habitat loss, and the “negative effects of trophy hunting” as being to blame for declining bear numbers statewide.

With its most recent petition, the organization used these unsubstantiated claims to justify the assertion that all black bear hunting must stop immediately until the department can assess the aforementioned threats and adjust its management protocol accordingly.

But a robust statistical model provided by a CDFW staff biologist during the recent meeting appeared to dismantle nearly all of the HSUS’s claims of declining black bear numbers in California.

by the numbers
According to Brett Furnace, a quantitative ecologist employed by the department, the number of black bears in California is stable. Hunter harvesting has had little or no adverse impact on the species’ prosperous growth rates, he said.

“There is no evidence of a sharp bear population decline in California,” Furnace said during a data-packed presentation to the commission at its April 21 meeting. “It is important to understand that less than 5% of the state’s bear population is taken by hunters each year. This low level of harvest is unlikely to have a significant adverse impact on the population.”

Furnace’s report was an attempt to provide the California Fish and Game Commission and the general public with an up-to-date assessment of bear numbers and demonstrate ways the department is working to modernize its bear management tactics.

Later in the report, Furnace said that while state estimates put the number of black bears at about 35,000 individuals, more localized efforts employing a cost-prohibitive but highly effective method known as spatial capture-recapture indicate densities of bears even taller in California.

“This conclusion is based on a full comparison of the preliminary results of our model with the results of those eight local studies,” he said. “Our state estimate is likely an undercount, so the actual population could be double that.”

Anecdotal evidence of increased human-bear conflict in California seems to reinforce Furnace’s conclusions about rising bear numbers. Incidents of habituated bears breaking into homes and causing extensive property damage have become increasingly common, particularly in the Lake Tahoe area.

Roy Griffith worked at CDFW for nearly three decades as a ranger and deputy chief of the law enforcement division. He attended the commission meeting where Furnace introduced himself and said that in all his decades of work for the department, it is the strongest bear population report he has ever seen.

“It wasn’t just hard science that will make your eyes roll back,” Griffith told MeatEater. “It was very much aimed at the average listener and the average hunter. They have not only tested the old data, but also used the new data to support and improve new techniques. They are combining modern DNA with hair sampling and stool sampling and facial recognition software. They are showing, both at the local population level and at the state level, that our bear population is strong and expanding and has been for years.”

Hunter’s Reject
Hunters who support continuing the California black bear season showed up in force at the April 21 commission meeting.

Some came in person, but many more weighed in via Zoom to reject the misalignment of HSUS bear hunters as selfish “trophy hunters” who care little for the valuable resources a harvested bear provides.

One of the hunters who appeared in person was Charles Whitwam. Whitwam, a San Francisco Bay Area resident, hunting outfitter and guide, is the founder of an organization called Howl for Wildlife. Since January 2022, Howl has been fighting to protect hunting rights across the country by using an innovative platform that quickly connects hunters with legislators and legislators.

“We had about 20 hunters there in person,” Whitwam told MeatEater. “There were 127 people who spoke on Zoom, and I would say 95% of them were people who RSVPed with us and were at the prep meeting that we had.”

Whitwam said some of the main talking points used by him and others during the public comment period of the commission meeting centered around the HSUS’s attempt to characterize bear hunters as “trophy hunters.”

“We have to address the problem of trophy hunting that the Humane Society likes to bring up,” he said. “They claim they have data that proves we are only hunting bears for photos and fur. I don’t know anyone who does that. I really don’t. First of all, it’s illegal.”

Under California law, it is illegal for hunters to leave any edible portion of a captured animal to waste in the field. According to the CDFW, this prohibition against wanton waste is designed to “prevent trophy hunting and prevent people from taking animals solely for riding.”

Like Griffith, Whitwam was encouraged by the department’s comprehensive scientific analysis of bear population statistics during the commission’s recent meeting.

“I think the Humane Society just did the hunting community a huge favor,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know if or when we would have ever seen this data. And this data now gives us the fodder we need to work on other opportunities we’d like to see here in California, like a second bear tag and a spring bear season. I think it warrants a conversation about bringing back dog hunting, which was banned here in 2012.”

the fight continues
While Whitwam, Griffith and a host of hunting advocates were delighted with the commission’s science-based decision to keep hunting bears, few doubt the HSUS will rise again in California.

“The Humane Society has made it very clear that their goal is to eliminate all hunting in North America one state, one species at a time, starting with California,” Griffith said. “Hunters across the country need to stay vigilant and stay on top of what’s happening in California. We cannot give up our western front.