Overview of Efforts to Suspend Black Bear Hunting in California

This post is essentially an unedited transcript of my discussion from Episode 13 – Enhancing the Social License to Hunt of the Hunt To Eat Show covering recent initiatives to suspend black bear hunting in California.

California has had a busy year with bear hunting. In February 2021, State Senator Scott Wiener proposed Senate Bill 252 (SB-252), which was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), to end black bear hunting in California. One of the things that the HSUS and Senator Wiener used in 2021 was to cite a declining interest in bear hunting in California. They said that many hunters and Californians aren’t interested in, and don’t support, bear hunting anymore. Senator Wiener eventually withdrew SB-252, in part due to substantial vocal opposition from hunters. There was a petition that collected over 27,000 signatures and we made our collective position known that bear hunting is still an active and important activity in California.

In November 2021, the HSUS submitted a petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to be heard by the California Fish and Game Commission to suspend black bear hunting in California. This year, the HSUS takes a bit of a different approach with its petition, instead citing a lack of robust population science on bears and habitat and landscape-level concerns, such as climate change and the impacts of wildfires on bears and their health.

As always, my priority is healthy wildlife, so I’m going to try to take a nuanced approach to this discussion and break down a few different thoughts I have, some of which you might agree with, some you might not agree with. But I believe this is how we build better and more complex knowledge on these issues.

Background

The HSUS submitted Petition 2021-027 in late 2021. This episode is released on February 17, and the California Fish and Game Commission hears the petition today. I encourage you to check out the results of the meeting and tune in to future episodes of the Hunt To Eat Show for further updates.

I’m going to give an overview of what the Humane Society’s petition argues and my understanding of the current state of knowledge around the black bear population in California.

It’s important to be precise with language here. The Humane Society’s petition requests a suspension to California’s bear hunt until three requests are fulfilled: “(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”.

Source: Bo Mertz – IMG_5557.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54019868

The Humane Society is pointing to the wider effects of climate change, such as drought and increased wildfire, and some of the CDFW’s data on bear hunting in the state to suggest that bear populations are facing increased risks and that the population is not as high as current estimates and therefore that current harvest levels are unsustainable.

At this point, the Humane Society is not calling for a permanent closure of the black bear hunt; however, many hunting organizations are suggesting – based on past experience and the stated mandates of animal rights organizations – that the idea of a temporary ban is a bit of a smokescreen and that the organization will never actually agree that the hunt should be reopened, regardless of what the science says. I don’t want to speculate on hypotheticals; my goal is to look at the current state of things and advocate for the wisest decision based on the best available knowledge.

So, what are the HSUS’s concerns and criticisms?

HSUS Petition

It might be helpful to break down the Humane Society’s arguments into two categories: uncertainties that they feel are cause for precaution and known issues they identify with the current state of knowledge.

In terms of the uncertainties, the Humane Society points to recent wildfires in the state and their potential effects on bear health and habitat quality. For example, in 2021, more than three million acres were lost from wildfires.

The Human Society also identifies a lack of an up-to-date and rigorous population survey for black bears. Given the lack of recent survey, the Humane Society argues that the CDFW’s bear population estimate has “no basis in sound science” and they go after some of the specific methods used by CDFW to estimate the population. The petition points to dramatically different bear population estimates over the last several Bear Take Reports published by the CDFW, which is their annual report documenting various aspects of the bear hunt, including the number of bears killed, number of hunters on the landscape, and estimated population numbers. Specifically, they identify a change in the estimated bear population supplied by CDFW, from an estimated 30,000-40,000 bears several years ago to a current estimate of 15,934 bears

In terms of what is known, the Humane Society points to some key pieces of data from the CDFW Bear Take Reports and a metric that is commonly used as an indication of the state of wildlife populations: hunter effort.

In short, hunter effort refers to how many hunters are out on the landscape, how long they hunt, and how successful they are at killing an animal. It is a measure of how hard a hunter must work to find the animal they’re after, and changes in hunter effort over time can indicate that there might be changes in abundance of a species. For example, if a species is abundant, you can imagine that a hunter doesn’t need to spend a lot of time hunting to find an individual. If many hunters are on the landscape, that’s a lot of people putting in the effort to find an individual, so if we see more hunters spending more days to find an individual, it can be an indication that a population might not be as abundant. I’ll come back to this in a few minutes, but let’s look at what the Humane Society is saying.

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Hunter effort in 2020 from CDFW’s Black Bear Take Report

Wendy Keefover, the senior strategist for native carnivore protection and one of the two signatories on the Humane Society petition, asks, “With so many hunters in the field, why weren’t there more dead bears in the last decade?” She notes that “No one knows, but it could be that there are not many bears living in California’s suitable bear habitats.” And this could be true. The Humane Society points to what appears to be increased hunter effort combined with what appears to be reduced success (or the number of bears killed).

These are some of the bases for the Humane Society’s petition and the evidence they are drawing on to cite concern for the black bear population in California. Let’s look at some of the data in a little more depth and unpack it a bit.

California Black Bear Data

The underlying message that we need more science is absolutely correct. The Humane Society is quite right to point out that we don’t know the impacts of widespread environmental changes and events on bears and their habitat. There is no doubt that there is reason to be concerned about the threats presented by climate change on all species and habitats. People will sometimes point out that landscape disturbances can be positive for certain species, such as wildfire stimulating new understory growth that provides rich food for wildlife.

It is true that landscape disturbance can be positive for some species, but it’s quite complex and certainly not a foregone conclusion that all wildfire affects landscapes the same and is all good for all species. We can’t minimize the complexity of wildfire disturbance and the range of fire regimes and ways that different types and intensities of fires can affect a landscape differently.

While some fires might work to open canopies and stimulate habitat changes that benefit bears, other fires can be devastating, reducing the kinds of habitats required by bears and allowing the colonization of invasive species that are not beneficial to bears. Further, more severe droughts also impede new growth in disturbed landscapes and compound the threat by building up thicker layers of flammable duff. Given these uncertainties, we absolutely need more research to understand the nuanced impacts of climate change and related issues such as drought and wildfire on bears and all wildlife.

In terms of CDFW’s data on black bear populations, let me start by saying that we never know precisely how many individuals of a species are on the landscape. Population estimates are always estimates, derived from models that incorporate a range of inputs, including aerial counts, mark-recapture studies, and harvest-based sampling. Does CDFW use the full range of data to produce the best and most rigorous black bear population estimate? No, they don’t.

We indeed need to encourage and pressure CDFW to enhance its black bear population research and produce more refined and robust estimates. But there is more going on with some of the data here than the petition reveals.

How Many Bears?

Let’s look at the actual abundance estimates presented by CDFW over the years. CDFW estimated the black bear population years ago to be 30,00-40,000 bears and the estimate now sits at around 15,934. But what is important to realize here is that this does not necessarily reflect a drastic reduction in the number of bears on the landscape. What this reflects is a change in the population estimate. This part of things dovetails with the data on hunter effort, so let’s tie it all together.

Here’s the rub: before 2013, it was legal to hunt black bears in California using hounds. When hunters were using hounds, the number of bears killed was higher, because hound hunting facilitates more hunting success. California banned hound hunting in 2012, and the nature of hunting changed. When agencies use harvest-based methods to estimate populations, they rely on what is referred to as “consistent effort”, meaning that hunters do about the same thing every year – that’s how they compare year to year. But when an influential aspect of hunting changed from 2013 onwards, CDFW states that this “violated a key assumption in that model regarding consistent hunter effort”. This means that the population modeling also changed, making it challenging to directly compare population levels in the years before the ban on hound hunting to the years after.

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Black bear population estimates from harvest sampling presented in CDFW’s 2020 Black Bear Take Report

CDFW addresses this change in population estimate in their 2020 Black Bear Take Report, noting that “the Department expects that the reduced population estimates are solely an artifact of the model’s constraints” and not an actual dramatic decline in the population. What they look at, then, is the estimated population growth rate. The logic holds like this: if bears have been reduced to half their population, one would see a declining population trend from year to year; but we don’t. We see a consistent population growth rate in the years after 2012 (growth rate = 1.00 for 2013-2020) compared to the years before (growth rate = 1.03 for 1993-2012).

Let’s be clear here: CDFW needs to develop bear population estimates that use data inputs other than only harvest-based sampling and develop appropriate models. Whichever way we slice it, the difference in population estimates is large, so we need to narrow in on some more certainty about abundance. We also need to hold CDFW accountable for its changed population estimates and require an explanation for how they are adjusting their models to account for different data inputs and parameters.

However, when we look at a couple specific pieces of information from bear hunting in California, there is some nuance that emerges about the numbers.

Quotas and Hunter Effort

First, the black bear quota is set at 1,700 bears. The way that the season works in California is that anyone can buy a bear license and go hunt bears. Hunters are required to report on a successful kill within one day of killing a bear, and if 1,700 bears are killed, the hunt is closed. Otherwise, it continues to a predetermined date towards the end of December. Bear hunters have not hit that quota since the ban on hound hunting in 2012. Hunters killed 1,186 bears in 2021, and the average number of bears killed since 2012 is 1,249. Therefore, there isn’t a strong reason to think that hunters are overharvesting bears if we use the quota number and assume it represents a sustainable harvest.

Annual black bear harvest, from CFW’s 2020 Black Bear Take Report

Second, hunter effort has fluctuated over the years and the appearance of drastic declines in hunter effort becomes slightly smoothed when you separate the pre- and post-hound hunting ban year (2012). What we see then is a more reasonable fluctuation in hunter effort and success. Most hunters that were successful at killing a bear spent a week or less in the field over the last several years. Most hunters who kill bears do so while deer hunting and are not actively seeking bears, so just because bear license sales have increased does not necessarily mean that many more hunters are actively seeking black bears – and I am curious how that confounds the use of hunter effort as a metric to consider bear population trends.

Hunter effort is an important metric, and it gives me potential concern to see hunter numbers increasing without corresponding increases in success, but like other data that CDFW collects and presents, hunter effort is not perfect and doesn’t definitively indicate a trend in bear populations. Rather, we need to look at the range of indicators.

Explanations Needed

I do have questions about the ongoing use of the 1,700 bear quota in light of substantial changes in the estimated black bear population. CDFW used the same quota of 1,700 bears prior to 2013 when higher success due to the use of hounds generated population estimates in excess of 30,000 bears. Even recognizing that the change in population estimates reflects an artifact of the modeling and not necessarily an actual population decline, we are still seeing a substantial revision of the estimated population, while the hunting quota remained consistent. This would mean that the quota of 1,700 represents a higher proportion of the population than estimated previously and we need evidence that this quota is still sustainable, especially if we are going to use the fact that hunters don’t hit the quota as evidence that bears are not being overhunted.

In addition, in their 2020 Black Bear Take Report, CDFW shows a graph of estimated bear populations which does show a reduction in the estimated population from previous years. On this figure, CDFW points out that the 2020 estimate fell during the COVID-19 pandemic and leaves the reader to infer that this fact must have influenced the lower population estimate. Part of how CDFW estimates population size is through age data on harvested bears. CDFW collects tooth samples from harvested bears to examine the age distribution of bears killed.

In 2020, the department was not able to collect teeth due to physical distancing measures in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they used the previous three years of age data in the 2020 population estimate. However, each year the report is published, the department used the average of the previous three years of age data in their population estimates, so for the 2020 report, nothing is actually different in the method. Therefore, it’s unclear why they point out that 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic as if this caused an irregularity in their methods, rather than offer a potential explanation for the lower estimate from even the previous few years.

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Best Available Knowledge

To me, what all this points to is that CDFW has been using what is currently the best available knowledge to manage bear populations and the bear hunt, but they have not been collecting and modeling bear populations based on the best possible data and methods. That’s an important distinction.

There are some critical uncertainties that all hunters ought to be perked up to; yet the current absence of certainty is not the same as evidence of concern at this point. We need more research on black bears, their habitat, and the potential impacts of landscape-level disturbances and climate change factors on them.

We must all push CDFW and other management agencies to commit to expanding the research on wildlife populations and habitat and we need to focus on those needs above our ideological objectives. If the data shows that a population is at risk, then hunters need to be on board with a reduction or temporary moratorium of hunting; at the same time, if a population is not at risk or if hunting is not a risk factor, then other organizations need to prioritize what is needed, such as increased funding for research, climate policy, and better habitat management.

Enhancing Our Social License

To close things off, I’ll revisit a paper published in February 2021 in the journal Conservation Biology by Chris Darimont and colleagues titled “Large carnivore hunting and the social license to hunt”. There’s no doubt that there are many cases that arise each year requiring hunters to be active advocates and ambassadors for hunting.

We need to remember that framing is key and that the majority of the public does not hunt and the majority of that non-hunting public supports hunting under certain circumstances. When we speak about hunting and represent ourselves as hunters, we need to remember not to always speak to the small minority of strong anti-hunting groups.

Source: By Dubhe – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=720040

Most of the people that see and hear us are a fairly silent majority of non-hunting – but not anti-hunting – public, and in cases where there are opportunities for the public to weigh in and influence decisions that affect hunting, it is that group we need to speak to and win over – the part of the population that gives us our “social license”. Let’s remember that our efforts to engage in advocacy and actions that maintain hunting are not a one-size-fits-all approach.

We need to adjust and shift our approach to ensure that our methods are appropriate to our audience. There are times to refute evidence and the positions opposed that might remove hunting opportunities; however, more often, we need to take advantage of the kind of “conciliatory dialogue” and meaningful engagement with the non-hunting public advocated by Darimont and his co-authors.

Conciliatory Dialogue

Here’s an example. In their petition to the CDFW, the HSUS notes that 70% of the public in California do not want black bears killed for sport. They also note that 71% of people think wildlife officials should prioritize non-lethal methods to deal with conflicts between humans and wildlife.

Use these statistics to help inform how you connect with people who don’t hunt. Emphasize that the black bear hunt is not primarily a sport hunt. It is primarily a food hunt and there are a few things we can look to as support for this point. Black bears are classified as a game species in California, which means hunters are required to retain the meat from bears they kill. In addition, in the 2020 Bear Take Report, CDFW reports that bears killed with the assistance of guides only accounted for 1% of total bears harvested. These numbers indicate the idea that people are hunting bears for food and not what some might refer to as sport or “trophy”.

Our primary motivations to hunt black bears align with what the public considers acceptable reasons to hunt. It also tells us that emphasizing the desire to hunt bears for food, time outside, and other things that the public typically supports, rather than emphasizing bear hunting as a conflict management tool, is probably the way to go when communicating with the non-hunting public.

Conclusions

We need to draw on different pieces of information when advocating for hunting in different public arenas and forums. But we can use statistics like those presented in the petition to our advantage and to inform our meaningful engagement in these issues. Draw on your networks; reach out to people you know who don’t hunt and ask them to contact fish and game commissions and elected officials to express support for hunting and maintain hunting opportunities. Expand the reach you aim for as a positive hunting ambassador and remember that being knowledgeable and respectful will always get us farther along.

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