California Black Bear
A California black bear. Courtesy California Fish and Wildlife Commission

Wildlife face unprecedented hardships, particularly in California. Considering habitat loss from continuous urban sprawl, recreational hunting, catastrophic wildfires, and record-breaking droughts, it’s more important than ever that we have a strong understanding of what our wildlife populations are so that we can adequately monitor which ones might be in trouble and implement solutions.

This is the central issue being considered in a petition pending before the California Fish and Game Commission. Submitted by the Humane Society of the United States, the petition asks the commission to place a moratorium on the state’s annual bear hunting season until our wildlife agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, can formally study the population and assess the effects that drought, wildfire, and other climate-related events have on bears’ survival.

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Currently, DFW allows hunters to kill up to 1,700 bears every year in our state. However, despite record numbers of bear hunters, the number of bears actually killed each year is on a downward trajectory. While this sounds like good news for bears, it could actually be indicative of a potential population decline.

In DFW’s most recently published “Bear Take Report,” the agency states that their 2020 estimated bear population is approximately 9,700-22,000 — a significant decrease from the previously reported 30,000-40,000 estimate the agency had advertised. Additionally, this figure is calculated using a population model that did not utilize field-based scientific study.

We’re currently experiencing the worst megadrought in more than 1,200 years — and scientists believe it will continue. In 2021 alone, a record 3 million acres burned in California, including in old growth forests — because of historic fuel build up from decades of fire suppression.

Fuel build-up coupled with hotter, drier summers resulted in severe fires that even scorched soils, much of which was vital bear habitat and travel corridors. Starving bears, particularly mothers with cubs, were struck on roadways last year in record numbers.

The discrepancy in population numbers is precisely why the moratorium on the bear hunt is so necessary. If bear populations were stable, or even increasing as some claim, record numbers of hunters would logically lead to increased numbers of bears killed. Because the exact opposite is happening, science and the precautionary principle tell us we must step back and take a look at what’s happening before continuing to allow hundreds of bears to be killed for recreation.

DFW must conduct a comprehensive statewide population study, using the best available science. And the dire threats from the climate crisis must be factored in as well.

Utilizing this precautionary approach comes with minimal risk, and heavy payoff if we can ensure our wildlife — specifically in this case, bear — populations are not in trouble.  The same cannot be said for the alternative.

Bears are extraordinarily slow to reproduce. Mothers don’t begin to have cubs until they’re approximately 4-5 years old, and then give birth only every 2-3 years because they spend prolonged periods of time raising their cubs.

Because of this, they’re highly susceptible to overkill as they can be killed in numbers far greater than they can make up for with new births and migrating animals. Bears have already disappeared from about 70% of their historic range because of humans.

For most “game” species (i.e., wildlife who can be legally hunted) in California, DFW puts together comprehensive management plans that provide a variety of information including the population status of the species, the status of their habitat, sources of mortality, etc. Yet California has not updated their Black Bear Management Plan in more than 20 years.

Why has the agency waited so long to update its plan? And why is it continuing to kill more than 1,000 bears every year without updating the science behind the plan?

In light of this, it’s simply ludicrous to carry on with “business as usual,” without doing the work to gather all of the information we need. We can’t just bury our heads in the sand when it comes to long-lasting impacts to any species — especially not with such critical ecosystem actors as bears.

I strongly urge the commission to grant the petition that would place a necessary pause on recreational bear hunting until — at the very least — DFW studies the bear population, updates their decades-old management plan, and the effects of drought and recent wildfires on our bears are adequately assessed.

Mission Valley resident Kym Bower is a humane policy volunteer leader for the Humane Society of the United States.