June 25, 2020
By Andrew McKean
No big-game hunt in the West differs as much from state to state as black bear hunting. It’s legal to use both bait and hounds in Utah, for instance, but only spot-and-stalk hunting is permitted in Montana. Washington allows hunters to take two bears per year, but Nevada distributes its limited bear tags by lottery and successful permittees are required to graduate from an “indoctrination” class before they actually receive their tag.
Why are bears the subjects of such close and variable regulatory scrutiny? The answer is both predictable—more than other wildlife species, black bears are relatable to non-hunters, who ascribe to them human traits and try to protect them through legislation—and surprising. Because black bears are among the least seen and most difficult species to monitor and manage, many state game agencies tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to seasons and hunting regulations.
Take California. The Golden State is Patient Zero when it comes to ballot-box biology. California voters used a citizen initiative to outlaw all mountain lion hunting in the state, and last year the legislature approved a law banning all fur trapping. There was a precedent for this pattern of legislating wildlife management. In 2012, SB 1221 outlawed hound hunting for black bears. If the stated intention of that law was to end what proponents called “unfair” to the bears and bobcats being pursued by hounds and “cruel” to the dogs themselves, which they claimed were often mauled by the quarry or exhausted by the hunt, the result has been that fewer black bears are killed in California now than prior to the hound prohibition.
And, as you might have predicted, California’s black bears have been growing in number and expanding their range ever since. In fact, since the hound-hunting closure, both bear depredation reports and kill permits have increased nearly twofold.
California manages its hunting season on the basis of a quota. The season closes on the last Sunday in December or when 1,500 bears are killed, whichever comes first. Prior to the 2012 hound prohibition, the quota was 1,700 bears, and in most years the quota was met, with about half the kill attributed to hound hunters. Since 2012, the harvest has been closer to an average of 1,200 bears, despite the California Department of Fish and Game’s estimate of a statewide population of nearly 36,000 bears, and growing.
BAIT, HOUNDS AND TRAPS
To understand why black bears are such lightning rods for public scrutiny, it’s useful to consider their history across the West. Originally, they weren’t classified as game animals at all. While deer, elk, bighorn sheep and moose all received protection as species managed by hunting seasons, bears were lumped with coyotes, cougars and bobcats as predators undeserving of protection by state wildlife agencies. It was legal to kill them by any means necessary, including by trapping, across most Western states all the way up until the middle of the last century.
As sportsmen began to consider bears as worthy quarry, protections afforded other game species followed. Seasons, bag limits and requirements to salvage meat and hides started to be applied to black bears. But across the West, baiting and hunting with hounds remained legal in most states. That started to change as the non-hunting public—their imaginations sparked by such popular icons as Teddy Bears, Paddington Bear and the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey Bear—considered hunting bears to be both barbaric and unnecessary.
You can track the adoption of most restrictions on baiting and hounds to states with a vocal and growing majority of non-hunters in the electorate. California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada all adopted some restrictions on black bear hunting. Currently, none of those four states allow bear hunters to use either bait or dogs.
In states with a more rural and hunter-friendly electorate, black bear regulations often allow for the use of both bait and hounds. Montana is a notable exception, but its conservative bear-hunting rules are explained by the presence of grizzlies, which might be attracted to and habituated by baits.
So, how have bear populations responded to restrictions on hunting methods in those states? It’s a little hard to generalize, as bear habitats vary widely in all four states, but in general, populations are stable to increasing.
Oregon reckons its statewide black bear population at between 25,000 and 30,000. Washington, which allows hunters to take two bears a year, pegs its statewide bear population at around 25,000. Nevada, which has only limited bear habitat, doesn’t provide a statewide census but says most mountain ranges in the western part of the state host several hundred bears. But California’s trend seems to be shared by neighboring states: Bears are increasing in numbers and range. As they do, the number of incidents in which bear-human conflict is reported increases as well.
“Over the years, reported human-bear conflicts have increased significantly,” says Vicky Monroe, California’s Wildlife Conflict Programs Coordinator. “Each spring and summer we receive numerous calls from the public reporting anything from black bears eating food off campground picnic tables to bears taking dips in residential swimming pools.”
In fact, since hound hunting was prohibited in California, the number of bears killed on depredation tags—those issued to resolve “problem bear” cases—increased from an average of 64 per year to nearly 98 per year.
BEAR MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHIES
In general, bears are considered difficult to both count and manage. That’s because, unlike elk or deer, they don’t congregate in herds. They are relatively solitary, and they prefer to stay in cover and avoid humans.
As a result, hunting bears isn’t so much a population-management necessity as it is a way to provide opportunity for hunters. Across the West, spring bear seasons provide rare big-game hunting opportunities, and not just for resident hunters.
That opportunity-first management philosophy explains why so many states allow relatively liberal means of take. Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming all allow either the use of baits or hounds to hunt black bears.
Game managers explain the regulations on the basis of tradition and efficacy. In other words, we’ve always done it that way, and it’s hard to kill black bears without the aid of dogs or donuts.
In Wyoming, which reports a stable-to-slowly-increasing black bear population, 81 percent of spring bears are taken over baits, compared with only 18 percent of the total harvest taken over bait in the fall season. Game managers report that far fewer female bears are taken in the spring season, largely because hunters are more selective, and have more time and opportunity to scrutinize bears over bait, as opposed to the often rushed encounter that hunters can have when stalking or ambushing bears.
Because of the difficulty in tracking bear populations and the wide variety of social concerns among various Western states with huntable bear populations, bear-hunting regulations are likely to continue to change over time. What’s unlikely is that these changes will result in more uniform regulations from state to state.