You won’t find grizzly bears in California anymore, but black bears are plentiful and every year, hunters kill about 1,700 of them. About half the time, they do this with dogs, which track the bears through the forest and corner them in trees.
Now, the state legislature is considering a bill that would end that practice and the legislation has sparked strong feelings on both sides of California’s urban-rural divide.
Hounds are a way of life for Dan Tichenor, who has six Plott hounds at his Castro Valley home, including nine-year-old Osage.
“He’s been on a lot of bear tracks – more than a hundred in his life,” says Tichenor. The dogs are open trailers, trained to bark when they’re tracking a scent.
Tichenor explains the process through a video of a recent bear hunt. The dogs run off, their noses to the ground, periodically letting out a loud bawl. It helps the hunters follow them and, Tichenor says, gives the bears plenty of warning. The goal in this kind of hunting, is to get the bear to climb a tree.
“You wonder why does a 300-pound bear climb a tree over a 56-pound dog? Black bears evolved with Grizzly bears. So they have an instinct to climb trees to get away from danger,” he says.
In the video, Tichenor and two friends approach a bear in a tree. “Yeah, I’m reading him a just a good, adult bear,” he says. Most of the time Tichenor practices what he calls “catch and release” – letting the bear go once the dogs tree the bear. But not this time.
“We’re clear. Go right ahead.” says Tichenor. The hunter takes aim with his rifle, and after a single shot, the bear drops from the tree. “Hey way to go, Bill,” Tichenor says in the video. “That was an instantaneous kill. I never saw one drop so quick.”
New Bill Would Ban Hounds
“It’s just a menacing, reckless pursuit,” says Jennifer Fearing, California Director for the Humane Society of the United States.
“There is nothing humane about chasing and harassing an animal like a bear for hours and miles on end until it’s so exhausted that it climbs a tree,” she says. Fearing says hounding is stressful for the bears and puts the dogs in harm’s way.
The Humane Society is sponsoring a bill that would ban the use of hounds in both bear and bobcat hunting in the state. If the legislation fails, they’re not afraid to take it a step further.
“The CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, my boss, has already pledged to pursue a ballot measure that would go ahead and eliminate their rights to pursue bears at all,” says Fearing.
Black Bears Doing Well
Bear hunting is regulated by California’s Department of Fish and Game. Department biologist Cristen Langner says with around 35,000 black bears in the state, the population can support it.
“It’s a very modest harvest, compared to what we think the population can handle,” says Langner.
Dan Tichenor says dogs are part of this tradition and actually make hunting more humane, because hunters are closer when they take their shot.
“Typically, you have a clean kill and you have much less risk of an injury or a fatal injury that takes a long time for the animal to die,” he says.
Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society says she knows hunters won’t agree with her – but if they want to preserve their lifestyle, she thinks they need to make some changes.
“Less than one percent of Californians hunt and these hunting traditions that they want to maintain, they really depend on how non-hunters view the legitimacy of hunting practices,” says Fearing.
The state senate passed the bear hunting bill in May. The assembly is expected to take it up when they return in August.