Hunters and conservationists across the country are celebrating after attempts to outlaw black bear hunting in California fell flat 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 deny a petition from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that sought to eliminate bear hunting throughout the Golden State.
For years, the HSUS has espoused the belief that California black bear populations are in the midst of a precipitous decline. They point to climate change, increased wildfire activity, habitat loss, and the “negative effects of trophy hunting” as culprits in the decline of bear numbers statewide.
With their most recent petition, the organization used these unsubstantiated claims to justify an assertion that all black bear hunting should be brought to an immediate halt until the department can assess the aforementioned threats and adjust its management protocol accordingly.
But sound statistical modeling provided by a CDFW staff biologist during the recent meeting appeared to dismantle nearly all of the HSUS claims about dwindling black bear numbers in California.
By the Numbers According to Brett Furnace, a quantitative ecologist employed by the department, black bear numbers in California are stable. Hunter harvest has had little to no adverse impact on the species’ thriving growth rates, he said.
“There is no evidence of a steep decline of the bear population in California,” Furnace said during a data-packed presentation before the commission at its April 21 meeting. “It’s important to understand that less than 5% of the state’s bear population is harvested 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 to demonstrate the ways in which the department is working to modernize its bear management tactics.
Later on in the report, Furnace said that while statewide estimates put black bear numbers at roughly 35,000 individuals, more localized efforts that employ a cost-prohibitive but highly effective method known as spatial capture-recapture, indicate even higher bear densities in California.
“This conclusion is based on a full comparison of our preliminary modeling results against the results of those eight local studies,” he said. “Our statewide estimate is likely an undercount such that the true population could be twice as high.”
Anecdotal evidence of increased human-bear conflict in California seems to bolster 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 game warden and assistant chief of the law enforcement division. He attended the commission meeting where Furnace gave his presentation and said that in all his decades of working for the department, it’s the most robust bear population report he’s ever seen.
“It wasn’t just hardcore science that’ll make your eyes roll back in your head,” Griffith told MeatEater. “It was very much catered to the average listener and average hunter. They’ve not only proven the old data, but they’ve used the new data to support and improve new techniques. They’re combining modern DNA with hair sampling and scat sampling and facial recognition software. They’re proving, both at a local population level and a statewide level, that our bear population is robust and expanding and has been for years.”
Hunter Pushback Hunters who support the continuation of California’s black bear season showed up to the commission’s April 21 meeting in force.
Some came in person but many more chimed in via Zoom to push back against HSUS’s malalignment of bear hunters as egotistical “trophy hunters” who care little for the valuable resources that a harvested bear provides.
One of the hunters who showed up in person was Charles Whitwam. A San Francisco Bay Area resident, hunting outfitter and guide, Whitwam is the founder of an organization called Howl for Wildlife. Since January 2022, Howl has been fighting to protect hunting rights across the country through the use of an innovative platform that quickly connects hunters with lawmakers and legislators.
“We had somewhere around 20 hunters there in person,” Whitwam told MeatEater. “There were 127 people that spoke on Zoom, and I would say 95% of them were people that RSVP’d with us and were on the prep meeting that we had.”
Whitwam said that some of the primary talking points used by himself and others during the commission meeting’s public comment period centered around the HSUS’s attempt to characterize bear hunters as “trophy hunters.”
“We got to address the trophy hunting issue that the Humane Society likes to bring up,” he said. “They claim they have data that proves that we are only bear hunting for pictures and the hide. I don’t know anybody who does that. I really don’t. It’s illegal first of all.”
Under California law, it is illegal for hunters to leave any edible portion of a harvested animal to waste in the field. According to the CDFW, this prohibition against wanton waste is designed to “prevent trophy hunting and to stop people from taking animals just for mounts.”
Like Griffith, Whitwam was encouraged by the thorough scientific analysis of bear population statistics provided by the department during the recent commission meeting.
“I think the Humane Society just did the hunting community a giant favor,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know if we would have ever seen this data or when we would have seen it. And this data now gives us the fodder we need to work on other opportunities that 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 hound hunting, which was outlawed here in 2012.”
The Fight Continues While Whitwam, Griffith, and a whole host of hunting advocates were thrilled by the commission’s science-based decision to retain bear hunting, few doubt that the HSUS will rear up again in California.
“The Humane Society has made their case very clearly 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 have got to remain vigilant and stay on top of what’s happening in California. We can’t give up our western front.”