The hunt will go on—but will the dogs get to come along?
That depends on whether Gov. Jerry Brown signs or scraps a proposed state law that would prohibit bear and bobcat hunters from using hounds to chase and tree their quarry. Animal rights activists have been backing the bill (SB 1221) since it was introduced early this year by a Southern California senator. Some hunting groups, on the other hand, are firmly opposed to what they say is a bill that could strip them of a traditional way of life.
Hound hunting involves unleashing a group of trained hunting dogs to chase bears, big cats, raccoons, foxes and other mammals, and usually run them up a tree or into a confined space. The sport is perhaps best known in its stodgy English form, in which horseback riders trail their howling hounds as they chase red foxes to exhaustion. The United Kingdom banned hound hunting last decade.
In California, black bears are a primary target for hunters and their hounds. Licensed sport hunters in California kill as many as 1,700 bears each year, about half of which are taken with the assistance of hounds, according to Patrick Foy, a Department of Fish and Game warden. In 2010, 61 black bears were killed by sport hunters in Mendocino County, 12 in Lake County and one in Napa County.
But for many hunters, simply treeing the quarry is the pinnacle of the hunt, according to Josh Brones, president of the California Houndsmen for Conservation. Brones frequently hunts bears with his dogs in the Sierra foothills, but he does so for the thrill of the chase alone, he says, and usually does not even bring a gun. He says that catch-and-release hunting is popular among many hunters.
Still, some activists consider the activity, whether the target animal is shot or released, to be wildlife harassment. Jennifer Fearing, the California director of the Humane Society of the United States, notes that most pet owners are either prohibited from bringing their animals into public lands or are required to keep them leashed.
"So this bill would just bring these hunters under the same umbrella of law that the rest of the state's dog owners have been under for years," she said.
The Marin Humane Society's director of communications, Carrie Harrington, points to other states that have already outlawed the practice.
"California is generally considered a pretty progressive state, and the fact that this has already been banned in places like Montana, where hunters are esteemed, makes it seem like it's time to do the same here," she said.
But in the Northern Rockies, houndsmen and their dogs face another element of the wild that does not occur in present-day California: grizzly bears. Brones says that when Montana outlawed hound hunting of bears in 1921, state officials were considering the fact that grizzly bears will often choose to fight a pack of dogs rather than flee, as black bears usually do.
"They weren't concerned with whether it was a fair chase or not," he explains. "They were basically trying to protect dogs from getting killed by grizzly bears. That's why they still allow houndsmen to hunt other species [like bobcats and cougars]."
Wade Derby is an East Bay hunter who helps arrange guided hound hunts for wild pig in Sonoma County. He opposes Sen. Ted Lieu's bill, arguing that hound hunting allows hunters to more selectively harvest bears.
"Hunters don't want to kill just any bear, and rather than just shoot a bear through the trees in a forest, hunters using dogs get to see the bear first and look at it and decide if they should shoot it," said Derby, who adds that some hunters prefer not to shoot male bears in the prime of their reproductive years and instead aim for older animals. "[Hound hunting] is a humane and effective way to make sure we're taking the right animal."
Senate Bill 1221 makes specific exemptions for the retriever dogs used in bird hunting, as well as the use of hounds in depredation hunts of problematic or dangerous wild animals and for research purposes.
Still, Chris Wilmers, a field scientist at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in mountain lion research, sent a letter to the State Senate and Assembly last May 8 expressing his concern that the bill could disrupt ongoing research projects. If the bill becomes law, he writes, "where will the next generation of hounds-men and -women come from to help us with our research and conservation efforts?"
Other issues remain the unresolved fuel of fiery verbal battles between sides. Hounds are abused or neglected by their owners and injured in fights with their quarry, hunting opponents argue. They also say that bear cubs and cougar kittens are occasionally mauled by dogs, though documentation of such incidents is iffy beyond the YouTube videos showing such skirmishes in graphic detail.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to decide on the bill by Sept. 30.