Bear hunting season underway, despite concerns
In October some 800 black bears were killed in California, and hundreds more are expected to fall by the end of the year.
Bear hunting season is officially open in the golden state, home to an estimated 23,000 bruins.
The season, which opened Oct. 14, will stay open until Dec. 31 or when 1,500 bears have been taken, whichever comes first.
“Last year, the limit was reached about a month before the close date,” said Mike Grima, regional patrol chief for the California Department of Fish and Game. “It went really fast.”
Allowing a take of 1,500 bears from California mountains and valleys keeps the population at a sustainable level, Grima added.
A license and an $18 bear tag makes hunters eligible for the take.
“There’s a limit of one bear, per person, per season,” Grima said. “And when they take a bear they’re required to present the skull – so we can do aging studies and compile population estimates.”
The Tahoe-based BEAR League, which opposes bear hunting altogether, has objected to the way the Fish and Game has managed the hunt.
In April, the Fish and Game changed the rules from selling a limited number of bear tags each season to selling as many as were requested.
Ann Bryant, executive director and founder of the BEAR League, said allowing an open-tag policy leaves room for hunting over the limit.
“We fought it and a lot of people wrote letters and argued the decision but it passed anyway,” Bryant said. “You have all these people out in the field who don’t know how many have been taken and by the time the word gets out that the limit’s been reached, hundreds of bears have been killed.”
Bryant said that scenario happened last year when 1,833 bears were killed in California under a 1,500 limit.
Twenty-nine of those bears were taken from El Dorado County and 32 from Placer County. Both counties border Lake Tahoe’s west shore, where human and bear encounters have become commonplace.
Controlling the population through the hunt is not a viable solution to Bryant, who has worked to keep bears from becoming used to human contact.
“I’m frantic – I’ve worked so hard all summer long with these bears to get them out of the (residential areas) and back into the woods,” Bryant said. “Now they’re sitting ducks.”
Ironically, Tahoe’s neighborhoods serve as hunting sanctuaries for the bears, which have been lured to the streets by tastebud-tempting garbage cans.
Don Lane, Forest Service recreation forester, said it’s legal to fire a weapon on Forest Service property as long as there isn’t a trail, camp, development or body of water nearby. Firing a weapon within Lake Tahoe’s urban areas is prohibited.
“Most bears around Tahoe live in that urban interface,” Lane said. “There are areas of Tahoe’s backcountry which aren’t conducive to supporting a large game population because it’s so granitic that it’s not good for bear or deer to live.”
But bears who wander into Tahoe’s hamlets and houses face another sort of threat.
Bruins which have become accustomed to human handouts have broken through cabin doors to get a free meal. These bears are often seen as threat to public safety and are shot by wildlife officials, according to Bryant.
“Add up how many are killed through depredation permits with how many are killed on the highway and how many are poached,” Bryant added. “We’re wiping out a lot of our bears.”
On the other side of the state line, bears are off limits to hunters.
Chris Healy, information officer for the Nevada Division of Wildlife, said 200 to 300 bears live in Nevada’s mountains.
“There’s really not much bear habitat in Nevada, just the eastern Sierra and most of that is in Tahoe,” he said.
Other big game – mainly deer and mountain lion – become targets in the Silver State, but not so much at Tahoe.
“There’s not a lot of hunting that goes on up there,” Healy said. “Most of the hunting takes place on the other side of the mountain.”
The presence of people has cut the number of large animals coming to the basin, Healy added.
“There used to be a major mule deer herd in the 1950s that would come up to the Marlette Lake area,” he said. “But development and traffic patterns have changed where the deer spend their winters and their summers.”
South Shore resident Randall Tobey, who has been deer hunting in the area for 20 years, said he’s also noticed a change in populations on the California side.
“I saw three deer this year behind my house (in Meyers), and normally I see about eight to 10,” Tobey said. “There’s too many people in their winter habitat and the deer are suffering.”
He and many other hunters keep their sport to the foothills and, for that reason, hunting hasn’t been an issue to the League to Save Lake Tahoe, an advocate for environmental preservation.
“Hunting hasn’t been a matter of concern to the league because we don’t think there’s a lot going on in the Tahoe Basin but it is a potential concern as a hazard to backcountry recreationalists,” Executive Director Rochelle Nason said. “We think it’s too crowded here to allow for hunting.”
For an updated count on California’s bear harvest call (916) 653-4263, extension 9.
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