California Black Bears: A Discussion with the Humane Society of the United States
In March 2022, I sat down with Wendy Keefover of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to chat about a petition the HSUS submitted to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The petition requested that the California Fish and Game Commission suspend the black bear hunt in the state. I wanted to chat with Wendy about what the HSUS hoped to achieve in California related to black bear hunting and management.
We live in a time right now where we feel increasingly pressured to dislike entire groups of people based on our ideological and political leanings. But hunting and conservation issues always exist at the intersection of society and ecology. We need dialogue with multiple groups of people to make progress on the complex conservation issues we face. Wendy and I had a productive discussion that revealed a mutual interest in surmounting the climate of polarization to have these discussions. I hope it also illuminates for the hunting community a part of the perspective of organizations we sometimes find ourselves at odds with in decision-making about conservation issues.
At the end of the day, we did not expect or set out to change each other’s minds or find complete agreement on the range of issues we face in one conversation. But we did demonstrate the capacity for shared and respectful dialogue, and for that, I am grateful.
This is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Collaboration with Hunters
Paul: I’m curious why you were interested and willing to chat with me about this topic.
Wendy: Well, I’ve worked with a lot of hunters, and I think there’s a lot of common ground. I’ve done mountain lion campaigns in several states that I worked on with houndsmen, actually. And I would say the biggest accomplishment that we obtained because we came together was the mandatory mountain lion hunter education program here in Colorado, which we exported to New Mexico and Montana. And the houndsmen were behind that because there are lots of reasons you want to protect breeding females, especially if they have kittens, and that was something that we could agree on.
Paul: Broadly speaking, how does the HSUS interact with hunters and hunting issues?
Wendy: What we work on at the HSUS is trophy hunting and hunting of native carnivores. So, we’re not opposed to all hunting. We did a huge campaign in Alaska, for example. And we’re not going after subsistence hunters or people who are hunting elk, or deer, or putting food on the table. What we are opposed to is the trophy hunting of carnivores because it’s just not sustainable, if you’re talking about large carnivores. It’s so disruptive to their family structures and it causes all kinds of adverse effects that are not good for people, or livestock, or other things.
“We have our own definition of trophy hunting. The primary motivation is to obtain trophies for display, and that could be a selfie with your cell phone that you post on social media. When you do that then it automatically becomes a trophy.”
There’s a lot of science out there showing that if you’re trophy hunting mountain lions, for example, and you’re removing the big, dominant male then you disrupt his whole family group. Typically an adult mountain lion will have three females and those females, according to new science, provision him and his kittens while he protects them from intruders. So, they have this social stability. When you go in and remove him, all these young males come in, and then they kill the kittens because they want to sire their own kittens, which is other mortality that never gets counted. Some studies show that the mountain lion females will move their kittens to a different place to get away from those immigrating males and they may start preying on ungulates that the agencies don’t want them to be eating.
Paul: How does the HSUS deal with large carnivore hunting and some of the concerns with it when someone hunts them the same as they other species, such as deer, where the hunt is for meat and it’s not a trophy hunt (using some of the criteria we might use to consider something a trophy hunt)?
Wendy: Right. Well, bears are really slow to reproduce, so let’s just look at the case of black bears. Our western black bears are even more slow to reproduce than, say, eastern black bears. A female isn’t an adult until she’s four or five years old. She’s only going to reproduce two or three cubs every two or three years. And that’s all dependent on things like if there’s drought or fires like we’re seeing in the west.
A recent study found that the southwest U.S. is experiencing a mega-drought that it hasn’t seen in 12,000 years. Roughly 90% of bears’ diet is vegetative matter such as acorns and berries, so droughts mean that these bears are not getting enough food. If you want to be sustainable and hunt to eat meat then eat deer, eat elk, eat ungulates. But it’s not sustainable to hunt to eat large carnivores. There’s the other issue of sentience. You know, these carnivores are incredibly sentient, and they spend a lot of time raising their pups, or their cubs, or their kits much longer than ungulates. Ungulates have evolved differently and so it’s more sustainable to hunt them. It’s not sustainable to hunt bears to eat them.
Black Bear Petition
Paul: With “trophy hunting,” I always feel that it’s critical to define and characterize it clearly. Can you tell me what the HSUS considers trophy hunting?
Wendy: We have our own definition of trophy hunting. The primary motivation is to obtain trophies for display, and that could be a selfie with your cell phone that you post on social media. When you do that then it automatically becomes a trophy. But then, carving up body parts or even the whole body and displaying it, that’s a trophy. It’s not just about eating.
Paul: The HSUS submitted Petition 2021-027 to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife asking for at least a temporary suspension of the black bear hunt. Can you tell me about the purpose of the petition?
Wendy: We’re asking the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to stop the hunt until they can satisfy several things. The first thing is to figure out the population. So, they didn’t put out what they call their “Bear Take Reports” for about four years and then suddenly in October 2021 they put out the reports for 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. I’ve learned from large carnivore biologists that the most responsible thing to do is to take the most conservative number and use that number, as a precautionary principle. The 2020 report indicated that the bear population was 15,000 ± 6,000. So, if you take the most conservative number that would mean that California has about 9,800 black bears, and that is a two thirds decrease from their previous most conservative number, which was 30,000 bears. The Department used to say all the time that there are 30,000 to 40,000 bears and now suddenly we have possibly, at the lowest limit, 9,800 bears. That’s a huge concern.
Second, there’s just been so much drought in the west. That means there’s no food, more wildfire, and that habitat and travel corridors for bears have been harmed. Eventually, it could mean that there’s more food on the ground for bears in some places but bears definitely require old growth forests because they use those snags for den sites.
Third, California is reliant on a black bear management plan that it created in 1988. It’s completely out of date and doesn’t have all the new bear biology that has come out in the decades since. For example, there have been some amazing studies done here in Colorado by Heather Johnson and Stewart Breck about human-bear conflicts and what you have to do; you can’t hunt your way out of human-bear conflicts or you’re going to drive the population down. We have to figure out a way that we can coexist with bears, and that’s going to be true across the range. We’ve got to figure out a way to coexist with bears because life for bears is only going to get harder as the climate changes. They’re going to spend less time in the den, so that means they’re going to be active more often, they’re going to need more calories. We just cannot just hunt bears until there’s no problem or we’re not going to have any bears.
The State of Science in California
Paul: One of the things you and I talked about when we first got in touch with one another was our shared concern about a lack of science with bears, their habitat, and the impacts of climate change. In the 2016 Bear Take Report, the Department was still estimating the population at somewhere around 35,000 bears. Once the 2017-2020 reports were released, 2017 was the first year that they completely adjusted the population estimate down to just under 20,000. It’s significant that all at once the reports were released, suddenly showing a changed population estimate that departed from the previous trend line. What kind of study does the HSUS want to see that you would consider an accurate, reliable population estimate?
Wendy: The other thing that we interrogated was the way the Department counts bears. You can’t know what a live population looks like by counting dead bears. It’s not accurate. Many studies recommend agencies stop doing that and yet they continue to rely on that method. It’s not an accurate way to count a population and we know how to count a population.
The Department would have to do an empirical study. That involves mark, capture, re-capture. There’s different ways to do that. With black bears you can do it with radio collars and hair snag DNA methodologies. That’s what we’re asking the agency to do, throw some actual empirical science at this, sound science, where we’re actually counting the live population so we know what the demographic is, and modelling has to be done carefully. How many breeding females do you have in the population? That’s the most important thing we need to know. They can’t know that using dead bears.
Paul: One of the things that I appreciated about the HSUS’s position was the focus on habitat and climate change issues. Is this a new position or focus of the HSUS?
Wendy: I wouldn’t say it’s very new. When I write comment letters or help write petitions like this, I just look at what science is out there to inform it. I talk to the biologists who write it so that I understand it. Our position is all based on the science and we’ve known that climate change is happening for a really long time. When we’re having three million acres in California burn with fire severity so bad that even the soils are scorched, that’s just really scary. So, we have to look at everything holistically and we have to use sound science to inform our position.
In 2011, there was a paper by James Estes et al., and and they talked about the downgrading of planet Earth, and that was based on the loss of large carnivores and some other species. Since that paper came out there’s been many other papers by huge groups of scientists warning that we’re going to lose megafauna. We just have to be willing to live with and have these species on the planet. Otherwise, we will have trophic downgrading of planet Earth, which is really scary.
Paul: What future situation or scenario does the HSUS want to see for black bears in California?
Wendy: Ultimately, I would love for the Department to do a population study and get an updated management plan in place. Given the drought and the fires, does it make sense to hunt black bears, or does it make sense to stop hunting black bears? I think we need to let science inform that.
That said, I personally am opposed to the trophy hunting of black bears. The other concern for me is the way that carnivores are hunted, and we can talk about black bears in particular. Depending on the state, various things are permitted. Some states, and they’re all western states, allow a spring hunt. So, when bears are first emerging from the den there’s bear hunts, and the problem with that is sometimes it’s females with new-born cubs who get killed. So, then all her cubs are orphaned and then they die from starvation, or predation, or exposure to the cold weather. We have bear baiting in some states and depending on the state the substances are anything goes, including chocolates and caffeine and theobromines, which are absolutely poisonous to bears and other wildlife. These bait sites are not species-specific. You get raccoons and bears at the same bait sites, so you’re spreading diseases like rabies or even mange. Mange is starting to go into the bear populations in the eastern U.S. Baiting is just going to contribute to that. We have hounding in some states. Wisconsin allows between 12,000 and 16,000 hounds a year to come in and they start hounding bears even before the hunting season just so that they can train their dogs. If you put a pack of baying dogs out in the woods, you’re disrupting not just bears but every kind of wildlife. Some of those methods are not fair chase.
Paul: In terms of the science that needs to be done in California, would the HSUS consider financially supporting the science to be done?
Wendy: Yes, we’ve told the Commission that we’d be more than happy to help them when they go before the legislature if they decide to do a study. Do we have the money ourselves to give them? No, we don’t. But we would certainly help them try and obtain those funds. We would do what we could to facilitate getting funding for such a study.
Paul: If the science is done and it comes out that bear populations can sustain a hunt, is that something that the HSUS would accept?
Wendy: If it’s trophy hunting, we would never be comfortable with it. So, if the point is to go out and to kill an animal so that you can display its body parts or to appear on social media with a dead body, we would never support that.
Paul: Is there a scenario in which you would not consider hunting black bears a trophy hunt?
Wendy: It comes back to the James Estes et al. paper about downgrading planet Earth. It’s just not sustainable to be hunting large carnivores. If you want to go out and fill your freezer with meat, then do it with ungulates, do it with prey species. It’s much more sustainable that way. With species like grizzly bears or brown bears, they spend an inordinate amount of time raising their young and they have these family structures that are disrupted when you kill them. In addition, when you kill a carnivore there are also unintended consequences to humans, livestock, and to those families of those carnivores that people need to think about.
Paul: What kind of work has the HSUS done to assess social values and opinions about hunting?
Wendy: We did a poll in January 2022 with Remington Research Group, which is a phenomenal and respected polling agency. Our first question was: do you support trophy hunting? In the west, opposition was 76%. More broadly, we know that two thirds of Americans do not like trophy hunting. And I don’t know what the polling data would be for Canada. You probably know better, Paul.
Paul: I’m curious about how to disentangle the motivations and characterization of a situation where someone eats all parts of an animals and keeps a part of the animal, such as a skull, to display. It bothers me that we present to the public this idea that these approaches to hunting are mutually exclusive. We poll the public and ask them if they support hunting for meat and if they support trophy hunting? But how do we understand people’s opinions on something when it’s a situation that’s not so easily distinct that way?
Wendy: I don’t know the answer to your question, actually. I don’t know.
Paul: I don’t know either. I continuously try to explore this because we are seeing such increased polarization in this continent and in the world.
Wendy: Yes. I’m with you on that.
Paul: One of my greatest political acts is to refuse to allow other people to put me into a dichotomy that I don’t agree is the correct framing of an issue. I don’t agree that certain issues are binaries, so I don’t accept the premise of conversations when I’m being asked to choose a “side.”
This where I come to with some cases around hunting and trophy hunting. I don’t take “grip and grin” photos of myself with animals I’ve killed. However, I shot a bear some years ago, and I have a photo of the bear alive and walking around. I that bear’s skull on my shelf because it was an important hunt to me. Every bit of the meat from that bear was eaten. Does that hunt become a trophy hunt as soon as I keep the skull?
Wendy: I would say a skull is a trophy. If you’re keeping a body part, that’s a trophy. I hate to hurt your feelings because I feel like I get the vibe that you are a really ethical hunter. So, I appreciate that, and I value that. I really do. We need people like you speaking out because we need hunters to speak out. When agencies decide to do things that are unethical, we need to drop the binary thinking and come together and accomplish things that benefit the wild lands and the wildlife that you and I both love.
Wendy: Like you, I love the outdoors and I grew up camping, and backpacking, and cross-country skiing, and doing all those outdoor things. I’m a wildlife photographer. My partner and I go to Yellowstone very frequently and I love to see grizzly bears and black bears.
I think that’s where we come together, and that’s where we find community and where we advocate for creating a planet where we have these wild species and these wild places that are not just turned into giant cities or some industrial wasteland. So, I think that’s where we can come together.
Paul: I appreciate that, and I still appreciate it even in the cases where we eventually diverge later. If we come together on something for a moment and we know that we’ve protected the existence of bears and their habitat, and then we have to separate a little on what we do next, I still appreciate the fact that we were able to work together in that moment.
Wendy: Exactly. This is beautiful. We’ve come completely full circle from where we started.