As black bear populations continue to climb past historic levels in California, a state senator introduced a bill to permanently ban bear hunting in state. On Monday, Jan. 25, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco brought forth S.B. 252, the “Bear Protection Act,” which would abolish bear permits and make it illegal to kill bears except for scientific research and the protection of human safety, public property, livestock, and endangered species.
“Over the past few years, black bears have faced unprecedented habitat loss due to climate change and wildfires, and continued sport hunting in California makes survival an even tougher climb,” Sen. Wiener said in a press release. “It’s time we stop this inhumane practice once and for all.”
Also cited on the senator’s announcement is Sabrina Ashjian, California state director for the Humane Society of the United States, a major anti-hunting organization and sponsor of this bill. Wiener and Ashjian claim that 70% of Californians oppose bear hunting and 63% support banning it.
“Californians deeply value the environment and have shown time and again that they don’t want to see their iconic wildlife slaughtered for sport,” she said. “By passing the Bear Protection Act, California can cement its position as a leader in protecting our natural resources and spare thousands of California’s majestic and beloved black bears from a needless and unnecessary death.”
Hunters in the Golden State and across the nation are outraged by this news. Roy Griffith recently retired after 27 years as a game warden for the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, where he rose to the rank of assistant chief in the law enforcement division and oversaw hunter education statewide. He’s now the legislative director of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, one of many groups bracing for war over this bill. Following bans on mountain lion and bobcat hunting in California, there is real concern this legislation may become law.
“Just how ludicrous is the arrogance of a senator from San Francisco County, a county that doesn’t even have bear harvest or any bear depredation issues?” Griffith asked MeatEater. “There’s no bears breaking through people’s windows in San Francisco County, destroying their cabins or eating their dogs or pets, their chickens, or their beehives, or their apple orchards.”
Throughout rural California and especially in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, locals and visitors have seen a rise in bears breaking into cabins, harassing livestock, destroying property, and behaving aggressively toward humans. Griffith said he wants to expose the hypocrisy of a senator from San Francisco trying to push his morals and values on the rest of the state, at the same time San Francisco is suffering one of the biggest homelessness issues in the state, among many other pressing problems.
“We’ve got a COVID crisis still going on,” Griffith said. “We’ve got people unemployed, and yet he thinks that’s an important enough topic right now to [go after] bear hunting, a legal and lawful act.”
Griffith said this bill follows a notable trend in California politics: the incremental whittling down of hunting opportunity. The state banned mountain lion hunting in 1990, followed by a ban on bear hunting with hounds in 2013, and in 2019 an end to bobcat hunting and an outright ban on all fur trapping. Many hunters fear more traditional game animals like deer and ducks might be next. Hound hunting and baiting bears are both illegal, leaving hunters to wonder how spot-and-stalk or ambushing bears is any different than deer hunting. Griffith said Wiener has previously asserted that most hunters only hunt bears for “trophies,” leaving the meat behind—which is blatantly false. The MeatEater crew considers black bear a delicacy.
In 1982, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife estimated the black bear population between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals, according to an informative article on this subject by Ryan Sabalow for the Sacramento Bee. The department now conservatively estimates there to be between 30,000 and 40,000 bears in the state—roughly triple or quadruple the number from just four decades prior.
CDFW currently allows a harvest quota of 1,700 bears every year, although agency biologists have strongly suggested it should be higher. Still, hunters have not hit that mark since a moratorium on hunting bears with hounds went in effect in 2013. Last year, out of 30,394 bear tags issued, only 919 were filled—barely more than half of the harvest quota. Still, Griffith said those license sales generate more than $1 million in revenue for CDFW, second only to deer tag sales. Hunters and anglers contribute about a quarter of the department’s entire budget through license sales and excise taxes. The loss of bear tag funding, plus the additional cost of culling an increasing number of problem bears without the assistance of hunters, will strain the department’s finances.
Problem lions and bears are discarded in dumpsters without allowing anyone to eat that highly prized meat or utilize the hides. And yet, Griffith said, Sen. Wiener still has the audacity to call bear hunters “unethical.”
Despite growing opposition, Griffiths is seriously worried that this legislation might become law: “If the governor wants it, it will pass because they’ve got a supermajority in both houses.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has not publicly signaled his stance on this bill, but he did sign the bills banning bobcat hunting and fur trapping in 2019.
Griffith’s group and others in the newly formed California Hunters Conservation Coalition are reaching out to representatives of the agriculture and livestock industries as well as county commissioners and law enforcement agencies statewide. Unchecked bear numbers will likely burden those groups and others.
MeatEater crew member and Bear Hunting Magazine Editor Clay Newcomb says this legislation flies in the face of all our guiding principles of conservation.
“Wildlife management in North America is a shining star on Planet Earth because we’ve allowed science to guide our management decisions. An emotional, anthropomorphic argument to end bear hunting goes against our stunning track record with wildlife and directs us into uncharted territory,” Clay said. “Where human populations and large predator populations overlap, predators will be managed and some will die. It’s a political issue of who gets to be the manager. California banned lion hunting in 1990, but in recent years government officials have killed as many and more lions than hunters did when it was legal.”
Clay echoes Griffith’s concern about this slow-burn of stripping hunters’ privileges: “We see clear trends of incrementalism in California, which is the declared strategy of anti-hunting organizations. Incrementalism implies that something you value is, at some point, going to be in the crosshairs.”
This isn’t just a California issue, Clay argues. These decisions will influence other states and set precedence for legislation that will affect all modern hunters, their children, and future generations.
“If you value North American hunting, you should care about this,” Clay said. “Bear hunting is often the entry point for anti-hunting groups into the hunting world because the narrative is easily sold to those who are uniformed. For the last couple of years we’ve been saying ‘guard the gate,’ and predator hunting is usually the gate. If you’re a pheasant hunter in South Dakota, a whitetail hunter in Missouri, or a squirrel hunter in Kentucky, you should care and get involved by speaking up for science-based wildlife management.”
Clay and Griffith encourage all hunters to make their voices heard by sending a letter or email to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and representatives in the legislature. A Change.org petition is available to sign here. You can also support the efforts to fight this bill by the Sportsmen’s Alliance, California Rifle and Pistol Association, California Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Safari Club International, Western Bear Foundation, and others.
“As a hunting community, we’ve got to join together, unify our voice and be the smartest, sharpest, and most compelling kids on the block,” Clay said. “We’re the good guys who have science and history on our side.”
Feature image via Tony Bynum.