Now they’re staring down another challenge, this one in the form of a petition to the California Fish and Game Commission that would “eliminate open hunting” of black bears in the state.
The petition was filed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the same animal rights activist group that was behind last year’s failed attempt to ban bear hunting in the legislature.
Like the 2021 bill, it cites climate change and increased wildfire activity as justification for doing away with bear hunting in California. It also points to a dip in hunter harvest numbers as proof that the state’s black bear population is in “steep decline” and calls for an update to California's black bear management plan.
“Given the threats California black bears face and the indications of their population decline, we ask the Commission to eliminate the season,” a statement attached to the petition reads. (The petition starts on page 44 at this link.)
The statement went on to say the HSUS request to suspend the bear hunting season “honors the will of the people of California.”
Instead of seeking an outright permanent ban on bear hunting, the petition aims for an indefinite moratorium until a wide-reaching list of demands can be met.
One such request is that the effects of drought and wildfire on bear populations be “adequately studied,” and that an empirical study be performed that takes into account the various impacts of climate change on the state’s bears.
The California Fish and Game Commission reviewed the HSUS petition at a meeting on Feb. 17. Commissioners neither accepted nor rejected the petition but deferred that responsibility to the staff of the California Fish and Wildlife Department (CDFW).
Roy Griffith is a veteran of CDFW, where he worked for nearly three decades as a game warden and assistant chief of the law enforcement division. He said that the HSUS petition is completely detached from sound science.
“They just keep chinking away at the armor, trying different tactics to see what works. That’s why they filed this thing,” Griffith told MeatEater. “All the data shows that our population is robust, and it’s been going through the ceiling ever since they eliminated the use of hounds to hunt bears 10 years ago.”
In addition to his work as a game warden, Griffith was in charge of overseeing the state’s hunter education program. Throughout his career, he has seen numerous challenges to California’s hunting heritage, some of which came to fruition and were implemented into law.
“I’ve been playing this game of chess for 35 years. They’ve tried everything here, and they use California as a proving ground to see what might stick in other states,” Griffith said. “They did away with bobcat hunting with a previous commission, and they used the same template: no bobcat management plan, therefore no bobcat season. And it worked.”
Data collected by CDFW supports Griffith’s assertion that black bear populations in California are robust and sustainable. The department’s own estimates put bear numbers somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 individuals. And the state hasn’t hit, let alone exceeded, its black bear harvest quota since it banned bear hunting with hounds in 2013.
“Since that time, California has not met their science-based harvest quota of 1,700 bears,” Griffith said. “It’s been about 500 bears short of that every year, so do the math. We have bears in places we’ve never had bears in the past.”
In recent years, Californians have dealt with a troubling uptick in human-bear conflict. Much of it is taking place in the Lake Tahoe area, where bears have become notorious for breaking into cabins and causing extensive property damage.
According to Peter Tira, a public information officer with CDFW, the department is confident in its data, which shows a healthy and expanding population of black bears throughout the state.
“CDFW believes that we have a very healthy and sustainable black bear population,” Tira told MeatEater. “We believe that the population is growing and has grown over the decades. It’s doing quite well. We’ve seen bears in California expanding their range into places we’ve never seen them before. We have growing human-bear conflict reports. In fact, we’re hiring new staff biologists to deal with some of these human-bear conflicts.”
Tira went on to refute the claim by the HSUS that dips in recent hunter harvest data indicate a decline in the overall number of bears on the landscape. He says that a number of factors are at play here, but none of them amount to a struggling bear population.
“Hunter harvest is pretty consistent when you take certain things into account,” Tira said. “For one, the use of hunting with hounds was outlawed in California. The first season after that ban went into place, the harvest of bears dropped precipitously simply because that’s one of the more effective ways to hunt bears in terms of success.”
Tira also pointed to increased wildfire activity as an impediment to hunter success in the field.
“We’ve had a number of unusually large wildfires that resulted in widespread and unprecedented closures to some of our national forests during bear season,” Tira said. “That impacted bear hunters' ability to get out and hunt and should certainly be factored into harvest results.”
He said that, while they did keep some hunters from venturing out, those wildfires may be beneficial for bears in the long run as the land regenerates.
“We haven’t seen evidence of wildfires having a dramatic impact on bear populations or forcing bears to move,” Tira said. “Bears have lived with wildfire for a long time and proven their ability to survive. Oftentimes, that burned habitat comes back better in the future. It clears out old growth and fosters new growth, which benefits not only bears but the species that bears feed on.”
In addition to wildfire and drought concerns, the HSUS cites climate change as a primary reason for shutting down bear hunting in California, pointing to such climate-induced threats to black bears as late freezes affecting mast crops, insect-borne diseases and parasites, and sexually-selected infanticide. All these factors, it says, are causing California’s bear numbers to plummet.
When asked about the impacts of climate change on California's black bears, Brad Burkholder, Wildlife Branch Program Manager for CDFW said, “we’re definitely aware of climate change and are thinking about that going forward, but in all of our monitoring efforts, we are not seeing any indication that there is a decline in bears.”
If bear hunting were to be eliminated in California, Tira says that conservation as a whole would pay a significant price.
“In 2021, bear hunter tag revenue generated $1.4 million,” he said. “That money is dedicated to big game management in California—scientific research, habitat work, etc.—for bear, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep included. Bear hunters also provide a primary source of biological information on the health and age characteristics of California’s bear population given the harvest data they provide.”
The CDFW will evaluate the HSUS petition and present a formal, departmental response to the Commission during its mid-April meeting.
According to Griffith, it is imperative that hunters and conservationists step up and make their voices heard if they want to preserve the right to hunt California black bears.
“This is just the Humane Society doing what the Humane Society does best,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the legislature so now they’re taking the back door approach and trying to get bear hunting banned by the Commission.”
He says that the best way to voice opposition to the HSUS petition is to send an email demanding science-based wildlife management to California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham.
“We need to light the fire and let folks know that this nonsense is going on, and that once again anti hunters are playing with emotions, twisting data, and submitting a petition based on lies,” Griffith concluded.