California hunters banded together to soundly defeat a petition seeking to indefinitely suspend black bear hunting in the Golden State. On Friday, April 22, the California Fish and Game Commission (CFGC) voted unanimously 4-0 to reject the petition, which was filed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The HSUS had argued that the state’s wildfires had harmed the bear population as evidenced by declining hunter harvest statistics in recent years. The CFGC had referred the petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), which presented data at the recent meeting showing that the state was home to a healthy population of black bears.
“It was really encouraging to see the commissioners not only emphasizing the importance of using the best available science—the CDFW really demonstrated that the bear population is doing well—but they also emphasized that this was not a question of whether or not you think hunting should be allowed,” says Devin O’Dea, the California Chapter Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA). “The CFGC’s job is to interpret the laws and data and make decisions based on science.”
During the April 22 meeting, 74 hunters spoke out against the petition and only 25 spoke in favor of it—demonstrating strong grassroots engagement spurred mainly by the groups in the California Hunting and Conservation Coalition (CHCC), which is comprised of 23 local conservation organizations. HOWL for Wildlife, a platform that drives hunter participation in conservation issues, amplified a letter from the CHCC and rallied hunters to attend the CFGC meeting.
At one point in the meeting, a commissioner asked Wendy Keefover, the HSUS representative, if her organization would support bear hunting if the data showed there was a population of over 50,000 bears in the state. (The CDFW currently conservatively estimates the current population is 30,000 to 40,000 bruins and caps the number that can be killed by hunters each year at 1,700 bears).
“Are we ever going to be in favor of bear trophy hunting? No,” said Keefover, who defined trophy hunting as when “the primary motivation of the hunter is to kill an animal in order to obtain body parts or to be photographed with that animal for bragging rights…not for food.”
The argument fell flat, in large part because California law requires black bear hunters to take the meat off of a kill. Mike Costello, the host of the Hunting Ain’t Easy podcast, responded convincingly, arguing that “if a picture was the primary purpose to hunt, I believe most hunters would be opposed [to it]. Humans are hunters and storytellers. From cave paintings to Instagram, humans communicate through artifacts and images. After the meat has been consumed and the hunt is just a memory, an artifact or picture does not invalidate the value of the animal or the hunt or the community involved.”
Perhaps most promising, CFGC President Samantha Murray spoke out explicitly in support of the practice of hunting. “I personally believe in hunting. I think it’s a natural way to eat meat. I know for sure hunting and fishing are important ways for young people and people to connect with nature and cultivate healthy respect and love for the outdoors,” she said. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that just because 99 percent of people don’t do something, we should say that no one should.”
The Decision May Have Broader Implications for Predator Management in the West
California has long been considered a hotspot for anti-hunting efforts. The state has low hunter participation rates, and voters banned mountain lion hunting in 1990, hound hunting in 2012, and more recently, bobcat trapping and hunting in 2019. Some worried that the recent petition would further limit hunting rights in the state—but thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
O’Dea says that BHA and other local conservation groups hope that the CFGC decision may actually lead to ways to increase access to bear hunting access in the state, perhaps by adding another tag or a spring bear season. Some local hunters are pushing for the reinstitution of hound hunting for bears, which is the most effective way to target the species.
That said, O’Dea doesn’t think anti-hunting attempts to limit bear hunting in California will go away for good and is looking at ways to work with independent researchers to help fund studies to help track and understand the state’s bear population. That research could help counter future attempts to limit bear hunting in the state.
But for now, the rejection of the petition is a big win for California hunters—and for hunting rights more broadly. It comes at a time when politics led to the shutdown of bear hunting in New Jersey, as well as the cancellation of the spring bear season in Washington state.
“Right now, predator management is a really big issue in the western U.S.,” says O’Dea. “The CFGC made a decision based on the best available science. That was framed by public participation and an overwhelming amount of support by hunters advocating for why they hunt and why it’s important. And the public engagement really helped.”