Voters in most states still understand that recreational hunting is the best way to control wildlife populations. This bear was taken in North Carolina, which has a thriving bear population and a well-run bear management program. (Photo: David Hart)
In 1990, California voters passed Proposition 117, a ballot initiative that effectively ended any possibility of a recreational hunting season on mountain lions. The animals were not endangered. There also was no risk of them becoming endangered. Instead, the animals were actually increasing and complaints of livestock losses were on the rise. That prompted biologists and some legislators to propose a restricted hunting season. Anti-hunters went on the offensive.
Prop 117 wasn’t sold strictly as a ban on mountain lion hunting. Instead, proponents duped voters by naming it the “California Wildlife Protection Act,” which included earmarking $30 million of taxpayer money for wildlife conservation. In other words, Prop 117 was passed off as a feel-good conservation initiative that would help all California wildlife. It was a major victory for animal-rights groups, which poured millions into efforts to pass it.
They didn’t stop there. Hot on the heels of a victory, various anti-hunting organizations set their sights on other states, claiming more victories in Oregon, where bear baiting and lion hounds were banned in 1994. Hounds were also banned for lion hunting in Washington in 1996 and Colorado voters passed a ballot initiative in 1992 that prohibited hunting bears with bait and hounds, and it ended the state’s spring bear season.
So what happens when seasons or methods are prohibited? It depends on who and when you ask. Hunters and professional wildlife managers were right when they said bear and lion numbers and the problems associated with them would increase.
However, some predictions prior to and immediately after Prop 117 passed did not come true. Attacks by mountain lions, for example, did not spike as many predicted. Twelve people have been attacked in California since 1990, but none have occurred since 2014. Nor is it known how much or even if the state’s lion population increased. Some recent estimates place the number of big cats at 6,000, but officials don’t seem to have any hard data. Another count from 1996 also placed the population as high as 6,000.
Oregon wildlife officials, however, seem to have a better handle, although counting animals as elusive as mountain lions is based on inexact science.
“There has not been a known mountain lion attack in Oregon and our population did not explode, as some predicted, after the use of hounds was prohibited in 1994,” says Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Michelle Dennehy. “All indications suggest it has continued to increase, but it was increasing prior to the hound ban.”
A Dead Cat is a Dead Cat
What those anti-hunting groups won’t acknowledge is that mountain lions in California continue to be killed at considerably higher rates than before Prop 117 was passed. In 2016, for example, California Department of Fish and Wildlife authorized 235 depredation permits, the third most since 2002. State and federal employees or authorized agents, including professional lion guides, killed 120 big cats. More than 130 were killed in 2004. On average, about 100 per year are killed through depredation permits. Prior to the ballot initiative, only about 25 lions were killed with depredation permits annually.
That increase is a direct result of Prop 117, which relaxed the rules for issuing permits for taking predatory lions. In most instances, a landowner just has to show some proof of predation of livestock or pets, or that a lion has been acting in a threatening manner.
“Not only are more mountain lions being killed, the state is not making any money from lion hunting permits. They are actually losing money because they have to spend so much time on the depredation permit process or just dealing with nuisance calls,” says Sportsmen’s Alliance spokesman Brian Lynn. “In many ways, the hunting ban actually backfired on anti-hunters.”
It certainly didn’t save any cougars’ lives. A 13-year study that examined populations in southern California found that even without a hunting season, survival rates were exceptionally low. Nearly half the study area’s big cats die every year. Cars accounted for almost 50 percent of all mortalities in one study area. In other words, California’s mountain lions are still being killed by the hundreds every year.
Nothing changed in California, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife did a simple regulatory maneuver to bypass the ban on hounds. Instead of requiring hunters to buy a separate tag, the agency added a lion permit to the state’s all-inclusive sportsman’s license. They also dropped the price of a stand-alone lion permit to $15.50 for residents and non-residents alike. The number of permits jumped from less than 600 permits prior to the ban to more than 56,000 in 2014.
“We wanted to encourage hunters to take a cougar if they had the opportunity when they were hunting other game species,” says Dennehy.
It worked. The first year hounds were illegal, hunters killed just 34 cougars, down from 144 a year prior to the ban. In 2013, however, they killed a record 292. Between hunter harvest, damage permits and cats killed by Department and other officials, the total kill in Oregon in 2013 was more than 530, a near-record.
Colorado also compensated for the bear hunting changes by extending the season significantly. Hunters can now pursue bears from September to March. Washington not only extended the season for mountain lions, they increased the limit and bundled permits with deer and elk licenses.
Colorado’s bear harvest increased from a few hundred animals to about 1,000 per year after the changes. The lion kills in Washington also jumped. Prior to the hound ban, hunters killed about 157 cats per year. After the changes, the annual harvest averaged about 225.
Despite the increase in the number of animals killed by hunters and other means, anti-hunting groups aren’t changing. They continue to fight against bear seasons in New Jersey and Massachusetts, winning some victories along the way. Bear seasons have come and gone in New Jersey, for example, where political pressure and lawsuits have resulted in an on-again, off-again season since 2003, the first since 1970. That’s when officials with New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the season after bear numbers fell to as low as 100 animals. Anti-hunters managed to stop proposed hunts in 2000, ’01 and ’02, and again in 2004 and ’06, ’07, ’08 and ’09.
Massachusetts banned bear hounds and the use of bait in 1996, but like other state wildlife agencies, MassWildlife made some changes. They extended the season to include two weeks that run concurrent with deer gun season and the entire state is open to bear hunting now. The total harvest increased from 100 in 2008 to 283 in 2016.
Although New Jersey still has a bear season, the governor-elect has vowed to close it again. So what happens when there is no more bear hunting? Unlike mountain lions, bears are far more adaptable and can not only survive in areas with high human densities, they can flourish. Bears also tend to have higher survival rates, allowing populations to increase at a faster rate.
As recently as 1997, there were an estimated 550 bears in the entire state. In 2003, the population in just eight northwestern counties was nearly 2,000. A 2009 estimate determined there were more than 3,400 in that same area. Predictably, complaints related to the animals increased as their numbers rose. So did the number of nuisance bears euthanized by NJDFW personnel. Twenty-one bears were killed in 2006, 37 in 2008 and 31 in 2010.
Aside from ending all recreational hunting and allowing “nature to take its course,” anti-hunting groups have gone so far as to suggest treating bears with contraceptives and ramping up “public awareness campaigns” to reduce conflicts.
It’s true that most nuisance bear complaints are related to such things as unsecured household trash and bird feeders. However, more troubling incidents also rise as bear numbers increase. A glance at nuisance reports confirms that. Attempted or successful home entries increased 153 and 18 percent, respectively, between 2006 and 2010. Livestock attacks spiked 423 percent during the same period.
“Nature can’t take its course,” Lynn said. “Humans have had such a dramatic impact on the landscape and on wildlife habitat that we have to actively manage wildlife now. That management also has to be for the benefit of everyone, including hunters. The only realistic solution is proactive management. Recreational hunting has been proven time and time again to be the best way to control wildlife populations.”
Some states are coming to their senses. A number of bills to lift or amend hunting bans have been introduced in state houses over the past few years. So far, though, none have passed. It’s unlikely one ever will in California, which is as far left politically as it has ever been. As bear and cat populations increase in other states, though, there’s a good chance enough people will understand that hunting isn’t just a good way to control their numbers, but the only way.
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