The End of the Hound Hunting of Bears in California

Axie Navas takes a look at the controversy behind California's recent ban

This bear was treed as part of a public awareness campaign put on by the DFG and California Houndsmen for Conservation in the Lake Tahoe region.     Photo: Matt Elyash/California Department of Fish and Game

"They’re trying to make us out to be monsters."

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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