The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fish and Game Commission met late this week, with a key piece of the agenda the Humane Society-led petition to ban black bear hunting in the state that will be further evaluated. Here’s the petition (the full text of the petition plus public comments can be found on the official agenda here):
Black bears in California are threatened by numerous factors. To start, California has experienced record-level fires and drought in recent years. In 2021 alone, more than three million acres burned from intense wildfires. Yet, to date, DFW has not analyzed the effects these fires—and future fires— or California’s well-documented drought will have on the state’s black bears, their food sources, or their habitats. Climate change exacerbates these issues and poses a further threat to bears both because erratic weather events limit the availability of natural foods and because warmer weather causes bears to spend less time in their dens, increasing the potential for human-wildlife conflict. As a result, bear biologists warn we must do more to avoid attracting bears to human food sources by implementing bear-aware campaigns, but we should certainly not increase bear mortalities to reduce conflicts. Killing bears to reduce conflict risks extirpating local populations and multiple studies warn that hunting bears does nothing to reduce conflicts with them.
Human persecution of bears, such as through hunting and predator control, not only does not stop human-bear conflict, it also threatens these animals because it causes “super-additive” mortality, meaning that kill rates exceed mortalities that would occur naturally. This is because hunters typically target adult breeding animals, which disrupts animals’ social structure and leads to indirect effects, particularly increased infanticide resulting in decreased recruitment of young. Because bears are slow to reproduce, compared to other mammals, this super-additive mortality can be especially devastating to bear populations. Another form of human persecution, poaching, is of major concern in California; the current bear management plan suggests that poaching numbers equal that of legal killings in some areas of the state.
In the face of these threats to bears, we are alarmed by worrisome indications of a steep decline in California’s black bear population. In late October 2021, DFW posted its black bear “take” reports for the years 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. In the 2020 report, the agency suggests that the black bear population is 15,934 (±6,163), a marked decrease from the estimated population of 30,000-40,000 that DFW has suggested for years. DFW now believes that the California bear population could be as low as 9,771 individuals, which would indicate a 67% decline in the number of bears from the previously reported lowest population range of 30,000 bears.
Equally troublesome is DFW’s unempirical approach to estimating the state’s bear population. Although many large-carnivore biologists recognize that using kill levels to estimate bear populations is unreliable, DFW uses the number of hunted bears to approximate the live bear population in the state. In other words, DFW has no empirically based estimate of the state’s bear population. What we do know is that the numbers of black bears killed annually is in decline while the number of bear hunters themselves has increased with a record 30,388 in 2020, providing further indication that the state’s bear population is declining.
Under California’s Constitution and the Fish and Game Code, the Commission has a clear obligation to provide for the conservation of the state’s wildlife. California’s Constitution creates the Commission and gives the California legislature the authority to “delegate to the commission such powers relating to the protection and propagation of fish and game” as the legislature sees fit. The legislature has accordingly granted the Commission “the power to regulate the taking or possession of . . . mammals.”
More specifically, the Commission has regulatory authority to “establish, extend, shorten, or abolish open seasons and closed seasons” for game mammals, such as black bears. The legislature has provided specific factors that the Commission must consider when adopting such regulations, including “populations, habitat, food supplies, the welfare of individual animals, and other pertinent facts and testimony.”
Further, the Commission has specific obligations with respect to its regulation of the black bear hunting season. The Commission must “annually determine whether to continue, repeal, or amend regulations establishing hunting seasons for black bears.” This determination “shall include a review of factors which impact the health and viability of the black bear population.”
Given the threats California black bears face and the indications of their population decline— factors that the Commission is required to consider in making its annual determination of whether to continue the black bear hunting season—we ask the Commission to eliminate the season until (1) an empirical study is conducted of the state’s black bear populations, (2) the effects of drought and recent wildfires on the state’s bear populations are adequately studied, and (3) the state’s bear management plan is updated to include the best available science, including social science. More specifically, the updated bear management plan should also consider the additional effects from climate change, including stochastic weather events (late freezes affecting mast crops), insect-borne diseases and parasites, sexually selected infanticide resulting from human persecution, and it should include plans to prevent human- bear conflicts, such as through bear-smart or bear-aware campaigns.
Our request to suspend bear hunting season until these conditions are met is not only consistent with the Commission’s legal obligations, it also honors the will of the people of California—70% of California voters do not want black bears killed for sport.
Hunting organizations such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers have argued that the black bear population in the state is doing well and continuing the hunting season won’t affect the sustainability of the species.
Here’s the full meeting summary press release from CDFW, which was the last meeting for commission president Peter Silva, who is stepping down. Commissioner Samantha Murray, most recently commission vice president, will be the new president:
At its February meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission acted on several issues affecting California’s natural resources. The following are just a few items of interest from this week’s meeting.
The Commission readopted emergency regulation prohibiting the use of hydraulic pumps to take clams, sand crabs and shrimp.
The Commission adopted regulations to protect bull kelp that include a prohibition of commercial harvest in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, an annual limit of 8,000 lbs. in Humboldt and Del Norte counties and other measures to protect kelp.
The Commission adopted regulations to protect California’s iconic grunion populations by implementing a bag limit of 30 fish per person and extending the closed season by additional month to include the month of June.
The Commission voted unanimously to list San Bernardino kangaroo rat as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
The Commission continued the decision to determine whether or not listing southern California steelhead as endangered under CESA may be warranted.
The Commission continued the decision to ratify findings for the decision to list northern California summer steelhead as endangered under CSEA.
The Commission determined that listing Lime Ridge eriastrum as endangered under CESA may be warranted. This commences a one-year status review to be completed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Lime Ridge eriastrum is protected as a candidate species during that time.
The Commission voted unanimously to list Shasta snow-wreath as threatened under CESA.
The Commission adopted amendments to big game regulations to include preference points reinstatement and tag refunds due to public land closures. More information on how to apply for reinstatement will be available at CDFW’s licensing website.
The Commission received a petition (begins on page 44) from the Humane Society of the United States to eliminate open hunting season for black bear until CDFW updates its bear management plan including a census of the California black bear population. The Commission referred the petition to CDFW.
The full commission was present. At the meeting, the Commission elected Commissioner Samantha Murray as president, replacing outgoing President Peter Silva who is stepping down from the Commission effective Friday, Feb. 18. The Commission elected Commissioner Erika Zavaleta as vice president, a position previously held by President Murray. The Commission assigned chairs for its three committees. Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin was selected to continue as chair of the Tribal Committee. President Murray and Commissioner Erik Sklar will continue as co-chairs of the Marine Resources Committee. Vice President Erika Zavaleta will continue to serve on the Wildlife Resources Committee as chair.
The agenda for this meeting along with supporting information is available on the Commission website. An archived audio file will be available in coming days. The next meeting of the full Commission is scheduled for April 20-21, 2022. Please see the Commission website for details.
Update: Here’s the Sportsmen’s Alliance on the petition:
The petition follows an attempt by the group last year to persuade the California legislature to ban all bear hunting. The HSUS authored “Bear Protection Act” (Senate Bill 252) failed after its San Francisco-based sponsor withdrew the legislation in response to the backlash from sportsmen and agricultural groups across the state.
“The truth is, HSUS opposes all hunting, and no amount of scientific data will convince them to support a bear season,” said Dillon Barto, manager of state services at the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “When they banned bear hunting with hounds, they claimed they were only against the use of dogs. This latest action shows, once again, that HSUS will not stop attacking California sportsmen and women so as long as hunting and fishing remain legal.
“This is nothing but an attempt to hijack the regulatory process to get a hunting ban in place after their failure in the legislature,” continued Barto.