SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Millions of acres of California's bear habitat have suffered years of severe drought and wildfires. Now, an influential animal welfare organization is calling for a ban on black bear hunting, at least until scientific studies can prove the population is healthy.
Next month, the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets state hunting regulations, will hear a petition from the Humane Society of the United States that urges the board to suspend the state's upcoming bear season that begins in late summer.
The Humane Society is challenging the Department of Fish and Wildlife's long-standing assertion the state's black bear population is healthy and has nearly tripled in recent decades to at least 30,000 to 40,000 animals statewide.
The animal welfare activists have led numerous campaigns around the country to ban hunting of various predators. But they are taking an usual position to make their case in California this time around.
As proof the bear population is likely in trouble, the group points to California's increase in the number of bear hunters, but a decrease in the number of bears being killed. Those hunter "harvest" numbers play a key role in state bear population estimates.
"The harms from the recent wildfires on California's bear population are currently unknown, as are the effects of hunting and poaching on California's bear population, and the reason behind such a dramatic decline in the estimated population," the Humane Society's petition letter reads.
It's the second time in less than two years that the Humane Society has tried to ban black bear hunting in California, whose state flag features a now-extinct bear, the California grizzly.
Last spring, the group sponsored a bill by State Sen. Scott Wiener that would have permanently banned bear hunting statewide. At the time, Wiener's office cited polling that showed bear hunting is unpopular among Californians.
Nonetheless, the San Francisco Democrat quickly withdrew the bill after his office was bombarded with calls and emails from state and national hunting associations that had mobilized their members to oppose the ban.
Hunters argue that bear populations are more than healthy enough to withstand an annual hunting season. The hunters say that contrary to claims by animal welfare activists, who frame bear hunting as a cruel bloodsport for trophies, hunters eat the porklike meat from bears they kill with rifles and archery equipment. They're legally forbidden from wasting bear meat, and hunters can be cited for shooting female bears with cubs.
Plus, hunters contend the fees they pay to kill a few hundred bears each year provide a hard-to-replace source of wildlife-agency funding that's used to benefit all species — including the vast majority of bears that survive a given hunting season.
Bear hunting permits generated nearly $1.5 million in revenue last year for the state's wildlife agency. The money goes into a big game management fund that supports habitat preservation.
Are bears threatened by hunting?
The way California's bear season works is that an unlimited number of licensed resident hunters are allowed to buy one $51.02 permit known as a "bear tag" each hunting season.
Last year, 31,450 hunters bought bear tags. That's more tags sold than any time in at least three decades, and nearly 3,700 more tags than were sold in 2019.
If they kill a bear, hunters are required within one business day to bring the skull to a Department of Fish and Wildlife office to have the head examined by a state biologist who extracts a tooth for study. The data the biologists collect is used to help form population estates and to make inferences about the overall health of the state's bear population.
Each killed bear is included in the state's harvest tally. The season is immediately canceled before its late December end date if hunters kill 1,700 bears statewide.
Bear hunters haven't hit the quota since 2012, the last year the state allowed hunters to use dogs to chase bears up trees for the hunter to shoot. The state Legislature banned the practice.
In 2021, hunters reported killing 1,186 bears. The year before, they killed 1,028. Those kill counts are slightly below the seasonal average of 1,249 bears killed since the 2012 ban on hunting with dogs.
"With so many hunters in the field, why weren't there more dead bears in the last decade?" asked Wendy Keefover, a Humane Society senior strategist for native carnivore protection. "No one knows, but it could be that there are not many bears living in California's suitable bear habitats."
That said, just because there are more bear hunters and they're reporting fewer kills, that doesn't mean the state's bear population is shrinking, said Jason Holley, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. If anything, he said the hunter kill "trend line has been pretty steady" indicating a stable bear population.
Hunting also grew in popularity during the pandemic. More hunters bought licenses and took up hunting as an excuse to get outside and away from crowds.
At the same time, wildfires closed the national forests for weeks during the past two hunting seasons, meaning hunters had fewer opportunities to find a bear. Holley said most bear tag holders also don't aggressively target bears when they do get out.
"That spike (in bear tag sales) is probably deer hunters who say, 'You know what? I see more legal bears than I do legal bucks to shoot when I'm hunting in the wild, so I might as well buy a bear tag just in case I run across one,' " he said.
Bear populations also appear to be doing fine, Holley said, despite the fires of recent years scorching millions of acres.
State officials estimate that in 1982, the statewide bear population was between 10,000 and 15,000 bears. Holley's agency says the black bear population is now "conservatively estimated" to be between 30,000 and 40,000 animals.
In California, bear populations have grown to the point that they've been showing up in new areas, including in places where wildfires didn't affect their movements, Holley said.
As their range expands, that's led to bears coming into conflict with people as they seek garbage, pet food and other human-provided meals. The rise in bear conflicts statewide has prompted the state to ramp up hiring employees to help deal with the influx in calls to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to report bear encounters.
Those sorts of conflicts grew especially pronounced last summer in the Tahoe region, where biologists say the population has grown to some of the largest densities in the country. For years, bears have been breaking into Tahoe homes, and attacks on people happen from time to time.
During the Caldor fire, authorities reported a huge spike in home and vehicle break ins and other bear encounters in the South Lake Tahoe area while it was evacuated for several days.
At the same time, mother bears are still regularly spotted across the state with three or even four cubs, Holley said, a sign of healthy bear habitat since the species has evolved to have fewer or no cubs when food is scarce.
The fires of recent years did undoubtedly kill some bears and pushed others out of their home ranges, Holley said, but not to the point that the few bears killed by hunters each year would harm the overall population.
"Now, if we keep having, you know, fire after fire after fire after fire of the kind of magnitude we've had in the last couple summers, yeah, we're going to have to take a harder look at that and see if .... if there's any downward trends in population," Holley said. "But right now we're not seeing it."
Scientists debate bear population
Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis, is skeptical.
He said he believes more study is needed, especially since the state is reporting a record number of bears as roadkill on the side of highways, something that could signal trouble for the bears as they're pushed out of their home ranges by wildfire and drought.
He said he'd be "surprised if the state had enough information to make an accurate bear population estimate," and the statewide estimate that does exist shouldn't be justification for bear hunting, which he opposes.
Instead, if hunting is to be permitted in a state as large and varied as California, he said, it should only be allowed in specific regions where the bear population has been extensively studied.
"I'm not sure why you would allow hunting of anything without knowing how many there are," Shilling said.
But Jon Beckmann, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno, isn't worried hunters are killing too many or that fires are harming bear populations.
He's extensively studied the Tahoe Basin's black bears with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a research-based nonprofit. He says that based on what he's seen in the field, the state's black bear population is doing just fine.
For instance, in the Tahoe area, he said there are so many bears, they're coming close to hitting their biological "carrying capacity," meaning there's nearly too many for the habitat to support.
"Black bears," he said, "would be the one of the least level of concerns for the various species in the state of California that I would have at this point."
Fires may cause short term losses to bear populations, but burned habitat tends to create healthier populations in the long run, said Roger Baldwin, a University of California, Davis biologist who's studied black bears.
He said fires spur regrowth in berry bushes and other plants that are vital food sources for the bears after they emerge in the spring from hibernation.
Plus, downed, burned timber quickly becomes loaded with grubs and termites that are a key source of protein for the voracious omnivores, which can grow to more than 400 pounds.
"That's going to be ideal habitat for bears," Baldwin said, "because they're going to get all kinds of food resources."
The five-member Fish and Game Commission, whose members are appointed by California's governor, will consider the Humane Society's petition at its meeting scheduled for Feb. 16 and 17.