Hunting 102b: Senate Bill 1221… Dogs and Bobcats and Bears, Oh My!

Yesterday, as I was picking up my lunch at Dad’s Sandwiches I overheard two people talking about SB1221. These people were, according to their conversation, in favor of the bill and possibly on the lobbying team in support of it, which is contrary to my position on the bill. I also had to explain this particular issue to my aunt and mother this past weekend, because my aunt has a close friend who is in support of the bill and who was one of the 150 people to go speak at the hearing on June 26th (compared to the 7,000 who showed up in opposition). What I want from you guys is for you to understand the bill, why it is a threat to all hunting, and why you should write your Assemblyman and the Committee members. And to try to clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding the bill.

SB 1221 is a bill that would ban hunting bear and bobcat with dogs. Right now it just passed the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee in a second, closed-session after an overwhelming outcry and attendance by the hunting and hounding community and a no-vote on Tuesday. It has already passed the Senate (by 2 votes). Next it goes to the Appropriations Committee, then the Assembly floor, then the Governor. This bill is something that is attempted every few years in some form of restricting use of dogs for hunting, but has gained momentum this year because of political posturing regarding the Fish and Game commission president legally harvesting a mountain lion in Idaho. I tried to find an unbiased article still up, it was a little tough. For the record, Commissioners are appointed by the Governor, and make no more than $500 a month. They are not legislators. They are in place to provide independent oversight to the Department of Fish and Game in regulatory matters.

Why is SB 1221 bad? Well, here are the reasons. The bill is based on emotion and perception, not science. The funding behind the bill is the Humane Society, which has stated, point-blank, that they want to ban all hunting in California, and then move on to other states to do the same. That alone is enough for me to not support it, because it is based on emotion, on a well-funded minority agenda, and not on science. There is the actual wording of the bill if you are like me and want to read it for yourself.

It is also based on one group of people wanting to impose their will onto another group of people. If you don’t like hunting, that is fine. But until you have gone out and experienced it, you do not have anything to base an opinion on except your perception. Personally, I don’t like noodling , but I am not going to try to tell those of you that like it (or want to try it) that you shouldn’t. I have never done noodling. I would not find anything enjoyable about wading around muddy water trying to get a fish to bite my fingers, or shoving my fist down a fish’s mouth. But hey, if that’s how you want to spend your Saturday, who am I do try to stop you? If you’re reasonable, you are nodding your head in agreement. Where have all the reasonable people gone??

These are the facts: The bear population is California is exploding (for biological reasons, and an increase tag limit would help), and the bill takes away the most effective tool for managing the bear population. And the state makes money by allowing it. Not to mention the thousands of families and people that earn a living running hounds. End of story! If this bill passes, then the state is going to be on the hook for hunting bears that become public safety hazards, AND those bears legally cannot be consumed, the carcass HAS to be destroyed, by law. Does the state have extra money laying around to pay people to hunt bears, when people are PAYING to do it now? No, last time I checked it doesn’t.

How to hunt bear and bobcat with dogs: Hounds (think Where the Red Fern Grows) are trained to scent bears and bobcats, then, as a pack, chase the animals into a tree, baying and howling to alert the hunters to where the pack is. It is in these dogs’ nature to chase and ‘bay’. In this day and age a lot of hunters put radio collars on their dogs, so they can find the dogs. And not just when the dogs have treed an animal, but when the dogs get lost (which happens regularly) or when the dogs are picked up on the road after getting lost. I have heard stories of dogs being kidnapped and the hunters tracking the dogs to the people’s house to retrieve the dog. And these are not cheap dogs, mind you. Good hounds are just like other good hunting dogs, and can command prices over $1500. Times that by at least 4, and usually 6 dogs in a pack. That is a pretty hefty investment for a past time, not to mention the vet bills, the FOOD, gas to drive to the field, etc.

Why hunt bear with dogs? Several reasons. When I lived in Humboldt I worked and played in bear country. I worked on timberland and worked and socialized with foresters and timber biologists. I saw a few bears in the field, but more often I heard them, crashing through the brush moving away from me, unseen. Where the bears liked to be were areas not very accessible, and if you wanted to hunt bears there, you used hounds. Because of the steep canyons, dense underbrush, and sometimes hazardous terrain due to timber harvest, just hiking around is very hard, and if pursuing game, is basically impossible. Bear hunting is nothing like the ‘ideal’ scene of a deer or elk hunt, where the animal stands broadside to you on the edge of a meadow where you have no trees, bushes or shrubs in the way, you can clearly identify the animal and if it is legal, and have a clear line of sight. When you bear hunt, you do not have a clear line of sight, essential to identifying your prey and taking a clean shot. This is why dogs are used, to find the bears, and to tree them. Bears’ natural defense mechanism (like porcupine’s quills, or opossums playing dead) is to climb a tree. They do not run up trees because they have no other escape, they do it because it’s what they do. Our hunting methods have developed in response to the prey’s natural methods of evasion. Bear hunting with dogs, or any hunting with dogs for that matter, has been occurring since we domesticated dogs.

Bears are also responsible for up to 90% tree death in some timber harvest plans in Del Norte and Humboldt County. I have seen this with my own eyes. Bears can reach a density of up to 5 bears per square mile and this results in a shortage of forage for the bears to eat. So, as a result of starving, they have started stripping the sugar-dense cambium of the inner layer of bark of redwood and other valuable trees. The timber companies are not able to keep the bear populations down enough to prevent this, even with houndsmen on staff and running dogs, not just for hunting, but for hazing bears away from trees. SB 1221 would prevent the timber industry from using houndsmen to control bear populations, and more depredation bear hunting would take place (which, again, results in the meat not being used). Consumers would see a steep rise in the price of redwood for our decks and raised beds.

The author and supporters of the SB1221 are using the following arguments:

We are not closing hunting for bears: You just won’t be able to use dogs to hunt, so you can hunt them just like you hunt everything else, taking 200-300 yard shots like you do with deer or elk or any other large mammal.

In reality, you are making it virtually impossible to hunt bears, because the people that are effective at hunting bears use hounds to do so in areas where the bear population is high. Hunting bears without hounds will significantly reduce hunter success, and therefore increase the bear population. You will see people just stop hunting bears altogether, not switch to other hunting methods. In addition, when you tree a bear, you are able to look at it from 20-40 yards away before you shoot it, so you are able to tell if it is male or female, and if it’s a female if it has cubs, if it is a young animal or mature, and you have excellent shot placement, which results in almost instant death for the animal most of the time. Contrast that with a 200-300 yard shot, where you don’t have the ability to sex the animal, you have a higher chance of missing or misplacing your shot (so increase chance of maiming or wounding the animal), and it is harder to tell how big an animal is the farther away it is, so you could be shooting a yearling bear instead of a fully mature one. There is no way to see if the bear is a mother with cubs from so far away also. There is also an increased chance that once you shoot the animal and get over to where you think it was when you shot it that you loose its trail, the animal dies slowly in pain, or gets an infection and dies several weeks later, or dies and you cannot find the carcass. All unacceptable things to an ethical hunter, and ineffective as a population control tool.

It’s cruelty to animals:  The bears run up trees because they are terrified, which is cruel, and the dogs get maimed, bit, and clawed by the bears defending themselves. The dogs are not well cared for and are overwhelming animal shelters. Also, you are shooting the bear out of the tree, so when it’s shot it tumbles helplessly to the ground. Hunting with dogs is a form of torture, because you are chasing the animals instead of just shooting it where it stands.

First off, I would like to make the point that wild animals live with the threat from other animals daily. So the stress that we, as humans, associate with being ‘hunted’ in the typically safe environment we live in is an unreasonable comparison. Also, animals do not react to stressful situations in the same way we do. In my opinion, a bear is more annoyed by the dogs than frightened. You have to understand, bears rule the woods in California. Even our ‘small’ Black bears in California are not afraid of mountain lions, and chase lions off their cached deer kills every day (one of the reasons the deer population is on decline btw). Bears do not have anything to be scared of in the woods. So, hungry mountain lion versus pack of barking dogs…. which do you think a bear associates a greater threat to? So the assumption that bears are running up trees because they are terrified and have no where else to go is unfounded, especially when you are familiar with the ecology of bears and their avoidance strategies, like running up a tree.

Houndsmen pay upwards of $1500 a dog, and hounding is not effective unless there is at least 3 dogs in the pack, more is better. I cannot say that every hunter treats their hunting dogs like I do (SPOILED is the word, sleeping on the bed, treats and love all the time, boiled eggs every day, etc) but after reading some of the posts by houndsmen I can say that there are hound dogs that are getting the royal treatment, just like my bird dog. Of course, when looking at the spectrum, there are going to be the good and the bad. But at $1500 a dog, most houndsmen are going to take very good care of their dogs.

It’s not sporting, and it’s trophy hunting: The bears are hunted with dogs so the hunters can take the largest, biggest trophy bears, and the bears are shot at point-blank range out of the tree. The dogs have radio collars so the hunters know where the dogs are at all times, so that is not ‘fair chase’.

Most of the bears taken using hounds are bears used for meat. California is not known for it’s ‘trophy’ bears, so this argument is invalid. Plus, the use of ‘trophy hunting’ makes people think that you are just taking the skin or head, and in fact, bear meat is very tasty and makes great sausage! Hunters hunt bears for meat (amazing, I know!) and population control, so just the use of  ‘trophy hunting’ is uncalled for.

Also, the bears are not shot at point-blank range. I have yet to see a hunter climb up into a tree to shoot a bear within arm reach. Yes, the shots are taken at a shorter range that most other hunting is done, but that is an ideal situation. The closer a hunter can get to the prey, the better the shot placement, and the easier it is to clearly identify the individual animal and its particulars, such as sex, size, lactating or not. As one of the houndsmen said on the 26th, hunting bear and bobcats with dogs is the only form of ‘catch and release’ hunting.

The idea that hunting this way is not ‘fair chase’ represents a complete difference of opinion. I have not hunted bear this way. So I defer to my friends that have. According to them, hunting bears with dogs is not ‘easier’, it’s just more exact. There is still the chasing of the baying dogs into canyons and out of valleys, through dense brush and forest. Using collars on the dogs does not prevent this. Without the dogs putting pressure on the bear to get into a tree there would be no way for a hunter on foot to catch up to a bear, let alone have the chance at a clear shot when the animal is calm enough to hold still.  Hunting bears would become incidental. An animal not moving, close enough to identify clearly, and calm enough for a good shot placement is an ideal situation. It leads to a quick, relatively pain-free death.

Other states have banned hunting bears with dogs: California is behind the times, 14 other states have banned hunting bears with hounds, so we should be progressive and ban it too!

The other states that have banned hunting bears with dogs that the HSUS cites are: Montana, Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Washington has it banned for hunters, but when they have to do any bear work, they use Karelian Bear Dogs. I know this because I trained in WA for animal restraint, and it was awesome watching these dogs in action. According to the representative from Oregon, as a result of the banning of bear hunting with dogs the state has had to hunt and kill over 300 bears that became public safety issues, compared to 3 before the ban. The other states have grizzly bears. Seriously. Look at this map please. You don’t hunt bears with dogs in states that have grizzly bears. Well except Pennsylvania, I don’t know what’s going on there.

How it is Supposed to Work:  DFG Biologists do monitoring surveys, collect data from hunter take surveys, do research in the field and in the library, and write papers and reports. Program managers take that science, and other science conducted by other reputable biologists and synthesize (oooh buzzword!) it with the management goals of the program and the department, and try to prioritize that with budget constraints and legislative mandates. They set seasons and bag limits, hunt zones, method of take, and author new regulations or change existing ones, based on SCIENCE. Then those changes are reviewed and approved (or not) by the Fish and Game Commission, a group of people appointed by the Governor.

BUT, if this bill passes, just like Prop 117, it takes away the ability of the Department of Fish and Game to manage the species that fall under its mandate. If you are going to allow the legislature to regulate how wildlife is managed in this state, what you do you need a Department of Fish and Game for? No one is listening to the scientists about HOW to manage game species, and groups like the HSUS are using the emotions and sympathies of uninformed people to support their cause and agenda. Which, make NO mistake, is to END hunting, and eventually ownership of animals.

So please, get active, get involved in your local shooting or hunting chapter, write your representatives. Because when they are done with us hunters, they are coming for you farmers.

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