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Dispatches : Politics

The End of the Hound Hunting of Bears in California

The houndsman waits and listens. It’s taken years of training, but his dogs are finally on their own, searching for a bear’s scent. Noses down, one of the animals finds the track, and they disappear into the woods, baying after their prey. To the handler, the barks sound just like music.

The bear tears through valleys and up mountains to escape, but the pursuers have practiced for this moment. And where the dogs go, the houndsman must follow. The chase, which can last up to 12 hours and cover more than 20 miles, ends either when the hounds lose the scent or when they’ve trapped the bear in a tree. Then, the hunter decides whether or not to take the shot.

“It’s the biggest test of both the hound and the handler,” says Josh Brones, president of California Houndsmen for Conservation. “This bear is going to throw everything it’s got at us—his whole bag of tricks. Its physical stamina, its knowledge of its home, and all its instincts. It’s the most exciting, most exhausting form of hunting in existence and the tightest bond between dog and person that I can imagine.”

Hound hunting of bears disappeared from California at the start of the year when a state senate bill signed in September by Governor Jerry Brown went into effect. The legislation bans the use of dogs to hunt bears and bobcats in the state, a move many consider a major step toward making hunting more humane.

For Brones, it’s an outrage. He’s spent nearly three decades hound hunting in California but plans to move to Texas by April so he can continue the practice. He won’t take hunting away from his dogs—animals he considers both his children and his partners—which were bred for the chase. “There’s a bitterness about how, generally speaking,” he says, “the hound-hunting community has felt like it’s been wronged by its government. They’re trying to make us out to be monsters.”

“ALL OF IT IS just gruesome. It’s just ugly,” says Ann Bryant, executive director of the Californian BEAR League, a non-profit committed to protecting bears. “I think it’s a huge statement that California has finally approved this. They finally came up to speed, but we’re proud of that. [Hound hunting] is so distasteful. If anyone watches videos of this so-called sport, they’re appalled at what actually happens.”

Type in “hound hunting for bear” on YouTube, and you'll get more than 1,000 results. One of the top three videos follows a pack of hounds as they chase and subsequently tree a black bear. The hunter shoots the animal, and it tumbles from its high perch. Another video on the Humane Society of the United States' website shows images of emaciated dogs allegedly abused by hunters or injured by bears, and it enlists the viewer's help in ending the practice that it compares to killing a caged animal.

Proponents of the hound-hunting ban argue that the practice hurts both the prey, which they contend has no chance of escape when hounds sport high-tech radio collars, and the dogs, which run the risk of getting swiped by a bear during the chase. 

With the passage of Senate bill 1221, California joins 14 other states—including Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Montana—that allow bear hunting but prohibit the use of hounds. Oregon voted against the practice in 1994, while Montana banned hounding almost a century ago.

A 2011 survey conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc. found that 83 percent of California voters opposed hounding of bears. Thousands of people wrote to the Humane Society of the United States, supporting the organization’s efforts to pass the ban, and though Brown signed more regular session bills (12,744) this year than any other of the state’s governors since Ronald Reagan, few sparked the outcry that surrounded SB 1221.

It was controversial from the start. Senator Ted Lieu introduced 1221 a week after the Humane Society of the United States posted a photo of the new (and now former) president of the Fish and Game Commission Daniel Richards holding a dead mountain lion he’d shot during an Idaho hunting expedition. Coincidence? There’s been no official statement that the two events are linked, but since it’s illegal to shoot cougars in California, Dan Richards’ actions sparked enormous outcry. The powerful HSUS backed Lieu’s bill shortly after the image made its rounds, and started organizing rallies and activating email lists to engage its more than 1.2 million California supporters.

“Our efforts are focused on what we consider to be the worst abuses,” HSUS Wildlife Protection Director Elise Traub says. “I think the public and even a lot of ethical hunters have these standards like fair-chase, where animals have a fair chance to get away from the hunter. That’s completely absent in hound hunting, and when the public learns about that, they’re disgusted by it.”

But what the HSUS calls campaigning, houndsmen and -women like Brones call propaganda.

ALMOST EXACTLY TWO MONTHS after Brown signed the ban for hound hunting of bears, the Michigan Senate voted 23 to 15 to designate gray wolves as a game species. Idaho and Montana allow wolf hunting, while Wyoming, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—which attempted to also allow hounding of wolves before a County Circuit judge stepped in—opened wolf-hunting seasons after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves in certain regions from the endangered species list. In early December, a hunter shot and killed one of Yellowstone National Park's most famous collared wolves.

Inga Cabral, co-owner of Russell Pond Outfitters in Idaho, doesn't have a problem with that. It's not illegal to kill a research wolf outside the park, and she said as much to a reporter from The New York Times Green Blog. It's a statement that earned her death threats and hate mail.

Wolves pose a threat to a way of life for outfitters like Cabral. She's seen elk populations disintegrate as the number of North American wolves explodes. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported that only 14 wolves roamed free in 1995. By 2011, that number had grown to 746. To many ranchers and farmers, that means 53 times the numbers of predators to gnaw on their flocks. To hunters, it means more competition.

For Mike Leahy, the Montana regional director of the wildlife-advocacy non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, wolves still inhabit too precarious a spot for sport. Under the delisting rule, Idaho and Montana can reduce the wolf populations down to 150 animals per state. The population can sustain some hunting, but not if state governments blow the lid off regulation.

So who do we believe—the ranchers and hunters or the wildlife advocacy groups? The fact of the matter is it’s hard to distinguish between fact and myth, especially since most people have never seen any of these animals in the wild. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there," Leahy says. "That these aren’t native wolves, that they kill for fun, that they grow to incredible sizes, that they attack people. There’s definitely much more acceptance of bears in the Northern Rockies, but that’s something we’re trying to change because wolves are impressive and important animals.

While there will always be opponents of any kind of government-sanctioned animal population control—and there definitely are important questions, both philosophical and moral, about human agency, animal rights, and human-animal relations—there’s another question to be asked now: why are bears treated differently, in the form of government protection, than wolves or even coyotes and cougars?

BLACK BEARS DON’T COMPETE against hunters in California, but though they may look cuddly, the animals don't make the best neighbors. And their numbers are also growing. The state's Department of Fish and Game reported that the black-bear population grew from about 23,000 animals in 1990 to more than 32,500 in 2010. Even after the ban, when a bear becomes a repeat garbage-raiding offender, which happens frequently when people leave trash outside, property owners can apply for a permit to kill the animal—with hounds.

You probably have owned a teddy bear at one point in your life. That cuddly thing you’d bring to sleep, the harmless thing you could squeeze without it biting back. But a teddy wolf? Not so much. Bears have generally occupied a place of warmth, wisdom, and even protection in popular culture. Wolves, though, are big and bad, and they’ll dress up as your grandma so they can eat you when you least expect it.

Or at least that's how we tend to see them, according to Michigan State University Director of Animal Studies Graduate Specialization Linda Kalof.

Kalof credits print and electronic media with shaping our perceptions of wild animals. From The New York Times dubbing pigeons “rats with wings” to the emphasis Western papers give to wolf and coyote attacks on livestock, the media is central in forming our perceptions of animals. And some of the most disparaged predators—such as the fox, coyote, or wolf—are those that prey on animals considered valuable to humans.

Even though the media might portray bears and wolves as dangerous predators—think The Grey or even Pixar’s Brave—when it comes to actual danger from either animal, your average hiker doesn’t have much to worry about. A 2011 report published in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that North American wild black bears have killed about 63 people over the last 100 years. Despite their fearsome status, wolves are responsible for the deaths of two people. Maybe. Even those attacks are contested, and both occurred north of the Canadian border. Coyotes and cougars are responsible for two and approximately 20 deaths, respectively.

In a recent study, Kalof explored how images affect our perceptions of animals and how conservationists might counteract negative visuals. Her 2011 report titled "The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation" detailed how museum visitors’ perceptions of animals changed after they’d walked through an animal portraiture exhibit. Before seeing the images, viewers regarded animals as wild, free, violent creatures. Post-exhibit, people expressed a stronger kinship with the animals, seeing them as individuals in need of protection.

“Human portraiture is deeply embedded in human culture,” Kalof says. “When viewing a human portrait, we reflexively project imaginings of personality on to the subject portrayed. We see characteristics like wisdom, vulnerability, power, glamour, and so forth depending on the particular portrait. The portrait has been used over the ages as a powerful propaganda tool.”

There’s a bear getting chased by a dog, through and eventually up a tree. Seemingly helpless, it gets shot by the hunter who deployed the hounds. Then there’s a wolf, feasting on a dead elk, all bloody fangs and beady eyes.

Those aren’t the only real portraits of these animals, far from it, but they’re the ones we see. And when you look at them side by side, it’s not hard to see why things are the way they are.

Axie Navas is a reporter at the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a local newspaper based in South Lake Tahoe, California.

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Powder Nightmares: SkiLink Is a Terrible Idea

The supporters of SkiLink, a proposed gondola linking The Canyons resort and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon, would have you believe a myriad of wrongs would make a right after all. I couldn’t disagree more, and I’m not alone.

Over 80 national and regional companies and organizations, many directly tied to the snowsports industry, overwhelmingly oppose the proposal. Why? There are many reasons.

SkiLink is an attempt by Talisker, a Canadian real estate development company which owns and runs The Canyons, to privatize pristine, publicly-owned land that is popular year-round with backcountry skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers. The citizens of Park City and Summit County in Utah have voluntary taxed themselves to tune of over $20 million over the past 20 years to secure open space and trail heads. Now a private company is attempting to develop land that is already protected and already belongs to the citizens.

Contrary to what its boosters would have you believe, SkiLink, which is currently prohibited by U.S. Forest Service and Salt Lake City master plans, would not be a meaningful solution to easing traffic and congestion between Park City and the Cottonwood Canyons; in reality, access to SkiLink would only be available if you buy a $96 lift ticket and ride multiple lifts for over 1.5 hours to reach Big Cottonwood Canyon.

SkiLink would also negatively impact the watershed of Salt Lake City. For those unfamiliar with Salt Lake’s topography, the canyons to the east of the Wasatch front serve as the watershed for over 200,000 people. This is why the elected mayors and representatives of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County adamantly oppose this project.

SkiLink sets a dangerous precedent of selling off public lands for commercial development without due public process and opportunity for local stakeholders to participate. Over the course of three different extensive public input processes, over 90 percent of Salt Lake citizens have stated opposition to this type of development.

Proponents of the linkage like to point out that the promotional value of something like this would be huge. True, but they don’t ask a more important question: “What is Utah’s signature ski and recreation product and how do we enhance it?”

Utah’s greatest draw is the mix of accessible pristine alpine backcountry ski terrain next to world-class ski resorts. To destroy that is to destroy our unique product and an integral component to our summer recreation economy. The question is not about promotion of a single resort or season, it is about enhancement, protection, and thoughtful Wasatch-wide transportation solutions to ensure our ski and recreation industry is as vibrant in 2025 as it is today.

In its current form, SkiLink is a premature proposal that smacks of insider deals and cronyism and fueled by a bigger-is-better-Disneyland mentality. It’s a piecemeal solution that could very well initiate an arms race of ill–conceived lift expansion in the Wasatch. SkiLink should not be approved until an overarching plan can be developed that is thoughtful, fair, and equitable among all stakeholders in the Wasatch, from an economic, environmental, and quality of life standpoint. Working toward an effective master plan that is beneficial to all should be the goal here—not a wrongly and poorly conceived plan, which is what the current SkiLink proposal is.

What we do now is done forever.

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Powder Dreams: Connectivity Is King

Skiers are, by nature, an adventurous lot. That sentiment couldn’t ring truer than here in Utah where on any given day you’ll find snow lovers of every stripe taking advantage of our legendary powder. But when it comes time to chart a course of sustainability for the future of the Wasatch, our passionate diversity of user groups can often be our own worst enemy.

Lately there has been significant momentum, and confusion, regarding the topic of an interconnected Wasatch. Not just the concept of skiing between resorts, but getting to and from the communities that surround our slopes. It's a subject that is incredibly polarizing and with good reason: skiing and snowboarding in Utah is both big fun and big business.

Instead of defining the problem sometimes it’s more helpful to first define the opportunity. As a Utah native who sometimes hopped on the ski bus instead of the school bus I know I’m not alone in wanting to find a more efficient way to access Utah’s mountains from the valley floor, and once I get there, ski between the central Wasatch’s seven iconic resorts taking advantage of a little bit of each area’s unique character and attributes. Breakfast at Deer Valley, powder turns at Alta, lunch at Brighton, and après activities on Park City’s Historic Main Street? Sign me up!

The answer comes from the marriage of two separate and distinct concepts: an over-the-snow, inter-resort ski connection that would allow skiers of all abilities to glide between resorts using gravity and chairlifts; and a fast, efficient, and safe mountain transportation solution moving people between metro and mountains. The goal is simple: more time on the snow and less on the road.

Every form of development comes with environmental concerns. Thoughtful and responsible planning by all entities involved will help maintain the quality drinking water and pristine backcountry terrain that we enjoy today. A game-changing, economy-stimulating, multi-resort connection and environmental sustainability simply do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Momentum and support for this vision of responsible connectivity is as high as it’s ever been. At the final meeting of the Mountain Transportation Study Stakeholder Committee, several agency heads agreed that it is time to select a transportation solution and begin in-depth studies that will also look at alternatives as well as environmental impacts.

Just a few short years from now Utah’s little corner of the ski world could be vastly improved over what it is today. Same great skiing but with better access and more options: a four-season mountain playground that borrows the best European transportation ideas and incorporates them with an American tradition of conservation and sustainability.

In less than a decade, Salt Lake City will have a new international airport that is already under construction—a modern and dynamic hub of activity with rail lines linking communities up and down the Wasatch Front.

In a perfect world those public rail lines would connect with a mountain transportation system to efficiently deliver skiers, hikers, bikers, and recreationalists of all types and abilities into a high alpine natural wonderland that offered access to seven distinct mountain resorts, including over 20,000 skiable acres and 90-plus lifts. With technology that’s available today, it could all be on one lift ticket. Adjacent to resorts supplying commercial skiing, but also accessed by public transportation, you would find hundreds of thousands of acres of the best backcountry terrain found anywhere in the world. And we would still be drinking clean water.

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My Perfect Adventure: Michael Brune

As the Sierra Club’s executive director, part of Michael Brune’s job is to confront the corporations that sully our nation’s great untouched places and to meet with lawmakers who have the power to make environmental destruction illegal.

Brune, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, started out as a grassroots organizer for Greenpeace. After working for other eco-organizations, including ForestEthics, he joined the Rainforest Action Network in 1998, as a campaigner. He worked his way up to executive director and served in that position for seven years. In 2008, he wrote Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal, a book about how we can stop relying on fossil fuels and pressure powerful people, especially lawmakers and corporate titans, to change environmental policies for the better.

In early 2010, Brune became the Sierra Club’s sixth executive director, joining an organization whose leadership legacy has included John Muir, Ansel Adams, David Brower, and Wallace Stegner. Brune got to work right away; in 2011, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million to support the Club’s efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants, a huge vote of confidence in Brune’s guidance.

As Brune makes clear in this interview, he believes that a climate solution is imminent. It will involve listening, he says, and commitment to the cause. And not a small dose of optimism and fun: Here, he reveals that his perfect day would involve a tent and his family, that his wife is his role model, and that he might consider trading places with Derek Jeter for a day. He also mulls that if he weren’t doing what he’s doing, he’d very likely be serving up mai tais on some tropical island.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
We get a lot of these days, fortunately. I’m with my wife Mary and our kids. The day starts in a tent in the redwoods, on a soft bed of needles. We’d be up in Mendocino or Humboldt County. A long hike, maybe a bracing swim in the ocean, a guilty-pleasure snack (I’m a sucker for Fig Newtons on the trail) and a soft fire at the end of the day. Kids turn in early.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Tough choice, but I’ll go with the Arctic Refuge. It’s one of the few places left on Earth where the landscape is still wild, despite the constant pressures from oil-industry benefactors. Another reason to go: There’s still a few million acres we need to protect.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Picking a “best” place is like picking your favorite child. Can’t be done. But as a kid growing up in New Jersey, I had my mind blown the first time I saw the colors and dramatic canyons of the desert Southwest. Never before had I seen such great adventure and beauty so accessible. Mary and I hope to take our kids there later this year.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or explorer, who would it be and why?
I’ve had lunch with Jim Balog before, but I’d like to do it again. This time we wouldn’t be in an office in downtown San Francisco but on the ice, surrounded by glaciers, under a blinding blue sky. Maybe we’d talk about how glaciers are retreating but smart, creative activism is surging.

What’s something you can’t travel without? And why do you need it?
Optimism. Trust me: In my line of work, one needs a streaming supply of optimism when traveling to meet with corporate CEOs and politicos. And when you’re on the road with young kids, what parent doesn’t need a little optimism?

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I unpack everything as quickly as I can, then maybe play some music and stretch. I travel often but don’t want to feel transient, so I use a few tricks to get my feet on the ground. Wherever it is, I want to feel like I’m living there, rather than just staying there.

What motivates you to keep doing the work you do?
So many things, but mostly the fact that we have the solutions to climate change at hand. Many of the world’s problems seem intractable—it’s hard to unlock racism or homophobia or prevent violent conflict. But we have all that we need to stabilize our climate and build a society powered by clean energy. Everything, that is, except enough political will. And that’s what we’re working to build.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
I really wanted to be the Yankees starting shortstop. Damn you, Derek Jeter! But I have no regrets. To quote another famous Yankee, I consider myself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” to have a career in which it’s my job to do everything I can to make the world a better place. Though if Jeter wants to try beating up on fossil-fuel companies, I’d be willing to switch for a day or two.

How did you first venture into environmental activism?
Growing up on the New Jersey Shore, I saw firsthand how water pollution made people sick, harmed wildlife, and hammered the local economy. And then I saw how a few dedicated people who organized together to stop waste dumping in the ocean and clean up a toxic plant nearby. I was forever inspired.

What advice you would give to a young activist?
Listen, and respond. It’s the most important thing we can do, not just as activists, but as humans. Make an effort to genuinely understand the hopes of your supporters and the concerns of your opponents, and respond accordingly. Your allies, adversaries, and maybe even your spouse or roommate will thank you.

Who has been your most influential role model? What has he or she taught you?
This might sound corny, but my wife is a powerful role model for me and many others. Mary is the kindest person I know, and she sees the goodness in people so consistently that it’s humbling. She is fierce in her advocacy for the elimination of toxic chemicals but leads with a grace that is inspiring.

Do you have a life philosophy?
I try to bring a little joy and creativity into everything I do.

Have you ever experienced an accident during your travels that made you think twice about getting out there again?
Mary and I were in Maui on our honeymoon. Ignoring the gathering thunderclouds, I left one afternoon to wade solo up a river through a narrow canyon to swim in a beautiful—and pretty hard-to-reach—waterfall. Then the storm hit. I violated about a dozen rules for outdoor safety—and a healthy marriage. Suffice it to say I’m lucky to be here.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I’m going to have to stick with this career for a little while because the only other thing I can think of is to be a bartender at some sleepy little beachside hut in the South Pacific.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
I’d like to hike the full length of California’s legendary John Muir Trail.

I still want to throw out the first pitch someday at Yankee Stadium.

And my work won’t be complete until our power in the U.S. is derived from 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

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My 'Outside' Moment of the Year: The City and Hurricane Sandy

We asked our fellow staffers for their favorite Outside moments of the year, and we want to hear yours, too. In the comments, tell us what moved you, what mattered to you, and what moment stood out most.

New York City prides itself on being indomitable. Its residents often feel impervious to the natural world. There are umbrella men on the avenues for rain, and snowstorms are inconveniences that make you late for lunch but give car owners a reprieve from street cleaning rules. For a week, Hurricane Sandy put a stop to that chosen naivete, flooding subways, burning homes, knocking down cranes, turning out the lights and otherwise forcing the busiest city on earth to submit to nature. By literally thrusting the hard fact of our altered environment into the streets, the storm did what many activists and scientists couldn't: reinsert climate change into the public conversation, with Mayor Bloomberg endorsing President Obama prior to the election due mostly to Mitt Romney's wishy washy beliefs on global warming. The city has since resumed its fast churn—it always does—but the images of the dark skyline and the whitecaps in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the burned shells of houses in Breezy Point endure. It remains to be seen whether the newfound understanding of the city's frailty will.

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