Use of hounds to hunt bears, bobcats ends

A long and storied tradition of bear and bobcat hunting came to an end in California today.

State lawmakers voted in late September to amend the Fish and Game Code to make it illegal to pursue bears and bobcats with hounds.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat from Woodland Hills, introduced the bill. He suggested hunters who use hounds sit back and relax while their dogs pursue bobcats and bears until the wild animals are too exhausted to continue running and take refuge in a tree or cave.

“While the hunter relaxes, perhaps opens a cold one, packs of dogs are released to chase the bears and bobcats to the point of exhaustion, a chase that can last more than three hours,” Blumenfield said. “The chase ends when the animals climb a tree to escape the baying hounds and the hunter saunters off to take an execution shot at close range.”

San Andreas businessman Rico Oller disagrees with this characterization of hunters who use hounds. Oller, who started hunting with his father when he was about 4 years old, has spent more than 40 years of his life hunting bears, bobcats and raccoons with dogs.

While serving as an assemblyman several years ago, Oller helped defeat a similar bill.

“It’s a tragedy in the making for the state of California,” he said. “The state will be hiring hunters to do what people used to pay to do. The bear population is going to grow. It’s going to get bigger and get bigger fast.”

Oller said his favorite part of hunting with hounds was training the dogs and being outside in the wilderness.

“Seeing dogs perform and really become mature and find their stride is really fun,” he enthused. “It’s rewarding. You really love your dogs; they are important to you.”

He spoke fondly of the best dogs he has owned over the years: Madge, Shine and Slate.

“In 1985, I caught 41 bears, 17 bobcats and 84 coons,” he said. “That was my best all-around year in hunting.”

Catching an animal means it’s either treed or cornered in a cave, not that it was shot. The vast majority of bears caught or treed are released unharmed, Oller and others said.

Data collected in 2011 by the California Department of Fish and Game indicates there are between 25,000 and 30,000 black bears living in 52,000 square miles of hunting zones throughout the state.

Oller said that’s a very conservative estimate. He said the bear population has been growing by leaps and bounds, estimating the state population is now in excess of 70,000.

Fish and Game data shows California’s bear population has increased in recent years. Black bears are being observed in areas where they were not seen 50 years ago along the Central Coast and Transverse mountain ranges of Southern California.

This trend holds true in Calaveras County.

“The bear population today is greater than it’s ever been in my lifetime – vastly more bears,” Oller said. “There are bears in Valley Springs, all over Bear Mountain (between San Andreas and Valley Springs) and around Angels Camp,” Oller said. “There are so many bears, they are spreading to new places.”

An increased bear population could lead to more human bear encounters as the large mammal intrudes into human territory, some of which will be deadly as bears lose their fear of man.

As Oller sees it, aside from humans, bears are the top of the food chain. In fact – other than a wolf pack – the only animal known to have killed a black bear is a porcupine, when quills became lodged in a bear’s tongue and it died from starvation.

Oller said hounds strike fear into bears that is associated with humans.

“When bears are pursued, they see themselves as being the prey instead of the predator. When they have a healthy fear of man they are safer. They will not want to encounter people.”

Last year, Fish and Game issued more than 21,000 bear tags. Once the 1,700-tag limit was filled, the season was brought to an end.

In 2011, almost half the bears harvested were taken using hounds, according to Fish and Game.

The month in which most bears were killed was October, and in 2011, 28 bears were harvested in Calaveras County, which made up 1.6 percent of the total number killed. Siskiyou County took the top spot with 251 bears harvested.

Fish and Game determines whether the bear population is growing or shrinking by taking a premolar tooth from nearly all bears killed by hunters. If bear teeth are consistently getting older, the population is growing, Oller said.

Calaveras County Game Warden Alan Gregory said those who are caught hunting bears or bobcats with hounds after Jan. 1, may face misdemeanor charges, up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“Game wardens will enforce the laws of the states as we see fit, as we have in the past,” he said.

Oller said another detrimental impact of a larger bear population is the impact on the deer population.

“Bears are huge predators of fawns,” he said. “They are just going to devastate the fawn population.”

Another downside to banning bear and bobcat hunting with dogs is the economic impact, Oller said, adding places like Arnold will be especially hard hit.

“This is not a sport that’s a seasonal thing,” he said. “This is something guys do year round. It is the main pursuit in their life – their main hobby. That devotion means you’re spending money on dog food, vet bills, gear, travel and lodging. All of those things add up to a big part of the economy that’s now gone thanks to a bunch of liberals in cities who don’t understand the world at all.”

“The arguments from their side are all visceral – not based on science,” Oller continued. “Science supports our position, not theirs. It doesn’t matter, because the California population is ignorant. They don’t have bears wandering the streets of Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco, although it would be helpful if one got loose and ate a few of the right people,” he quipped.

When not marauding through cities, bears are a fascinating animal, Oller said.

“The bear population is concentrated between 1,500 feet and 5,000 feet,” he said.

More bears are harvested in Tuolumne County than Calaveras because it has significantly more land at higher elevation than Calaveras.

Oller said the two main focuses of black bears, which can live up to 30 years, is eating and reproducing.

“They are 100 percent garbage-eating machines,” said Marc Kenyon, bear biologist for the state of California. “Bears can roam in one direction up to about 100 to 150 miles.”

In the spring, bears wake up from an extended nap, which is not hibernation, Oller said.

“Hibernation is a different kind of physiological occurrence,” he said. “Bears go to den when their food source runs out. When they come back out, they eat different types of things. Blackberries, choke cherries, wild plumbs. Then manzanita berries come and they eat that. In the late summer and fall and into winter they gorge themselves on acorns. When acorn crops aren’t good, which happens, you’ll have bears in people’s yards like you can’t believe.”

In Calaveras County, some of the best bear habitat is in the area off Camp Nine Road.

“There are bears everywhere,” Oller said.

What draws the biggest bears there is hillsides covered in white oaks, which bear acorns with low tannic acid, making them extra palatable for black bears.

“When feed sources dry up and they have eaten all they can, they go to den,” Oller said.

It’s not until the bear is losing weight instead of gaining, that it takes a long-term nap.

“(In Calaveras) They usually go to sleep in January and sleep through March,” Oller said.

The biggest black bear, which are usually more of a brown color in California, was shot in the mountains of Southern California.

Oller said it grew so large because it never went to den. In the summer and fall, it ate acorns in the high country and when the weather changed, it moved into the foothills and valleys gorging itself on avocados and citrus.

A display in Groveland states the biggest black bear killed in California was 570 pounds.

The largest black bear ever recorded was killed in Manitoba, Canada, and weighed 805 pounds.

Oller said hunting is in his blood, and he loves nothing more than being out in the woods with his dogs.

“I never felt completely right until I was in the woods,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe that. I never was completely me until I was there. That’s where I felt life was most real and most meaningful.”

 Contact Joel Metzger at joel@calaverasenterprise.com

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