When Voters Approve Hunting Bans, Do They Work?

What happened after voters passed hunting restrictions in these states?

When Voters Approve Hunting Bans, Do They Work?

In 1992, Colorado voters passed Initiative 10, banning the use of bait and hounds for bears and ending the state’s spring season. That resulted in a flood of similar ballot initiatives. Some failed. Some didn’t. Oregon voters banned the use of hounds for cougars and bears in 1994 and a similar ballot initiative garnered wide support in Washington two years later. Voters approved Initiative 665 by a 2-to-1 margin, effectively banning bait for bears and hounds for bears, cougars, bobcats and lynx. 

New Jersey’s bear hunt has been in a ping-pong match between Republican and Democrat governors who either resume or cancel scheduled seasons. The state has had bear hunts in 2003 and 2005 and every year since 2010. However, Gov. Phil Brown, a Democrat, eliminated bear hunting on state-owned land, about 700,000 acres, after taking office last year. Brown indicated he wants to end the state’s bear hunt completely.  

Before they were passed, both sides of the political aisle were certain the various restrictions and bans would have sweeping implications. Biologists argued they would have a difficult time keeping predator numbers in check. Hunters insisted populations of deer, elk and other game animals would plummet as the number of large predators increased. Attacks by bears and cougars would spike, nuisance complaints would skyrocket and those who voted in favor of restrictions would be eager to reinstate every available form of hunting. 

On the other hand, anti-hunters were certain the predators would find a balance with their prey species and humans would learn to co-exist with bears and big cats. We are the problem, groups like Humane Society of the United States say, not the animals. 

So who was right?

Humans have certainly gotten better at co-existing with wildlife. Education efforts have helped reduce nuisance complaints, as more people are doing a better job of keeping bears out of trash cans and lions out of goat pens. Populations of both animals have skyrocketed in some states, but so far, there is no indication that attacks on humans by either animal have increased as a percentage of the human population, contrary to what many in the hunting community suggested. 

However, some predictions by hunters and wildlife managers did come true. Colorado’s bear population has indeed increased dramatically, from an estimated 11,000 in the late 1990s to as many as 20,000 today. The number of cougars increased in Oregon, as well. There are more than 6,400 lions in the state, more than double the number when Measure 18 passed. 

“Our cougar population was on a steady incline before Measure 18 passed, but the population increased faster after it was passed,” says Oregon Fish and Wildlife carnivore biologist Derek Broman. “The total harvest went up, though. Before, we were taking about 150 to 170 lions per year. Now the harvest is about 200 to 300.” 

Even with the increase in harvest, Oregon’s cougar population continues to increase, although Broman says the animals are running out of room and populations are leveling off. As hunters predicted, they are also taking a heavy toll on the state’s deer population. 

“They are definitely having a negative impact on deer and elk, although our elk herd remains above population objectives in some units. Our deer herd is down considerably throughout the state, but predation isn’t the only thing affecting our deer,” Broman says. “Extreme weather like deep snow and drought and habitat loss play a significant role in deer populations and we have experienced all of those in recent years.”

Everyone, it seems, wants to live in deer habitat, which is also cougar and bear habitat. And there are simply more people crowding into those areas. Oregon’s human population has increased by more than 800,000 since 2000. Colorado’s population has increased by the same amount. More than 5.8 million people live in the state now. 

Despite efforts by anti-hunters to reduce hunting opportunities, some state wildlife agencies have successfully countered the ballot initiatives. 

Soon after restrictions were enacted, Colorado Parks and Wildlife changed the requirements for obtaining a bear tag. When Initiative 10 passed in 1992, CPW sold just 2,000 bear tags. Three years later, hunters purchased more than 9,000 tags. In 2014, they bought 17,000. Oregon also made it much easier to get a mountain lion tag. In 1997, Oregon Fish and Wildlife sold 937 tags. After the ballot initiative passed, the wildlife agency slashed the price and encouraged hunters to add a cat tag to their licenses. 

“We sold about 60,000 last year, but without the use of hounds, success rates are around 1 1/2 percent compared to 50 percent with hounds,” Broman said.   

Even with such a low success rate, the cougar harvest increased. And contrary to the desires of anti-hunters who pushed for Colorado’s Initiative 10, the bear harvest increased significantly since it passed. Hunters killed about 300 in 1993. The harvest for 2014 was nearly 1,400. Broman said the total cougar kill in his state is around 500 animals, which includes hunting, depredation kills and defense of livestock. 

However, those cats killed by farmers and state or federal agents are essentially wasted. The animals are left on the ground or dumped in a landfill, the meat and hide left to rot. Even with a statewide ban on lion hunting in California, as many as 120 cats are killed each year through depredation permits. All of those carcasses are also wasted. (Proposition 117 was in response to a proposal by California Fish and Wildlife to allow as many as 190 lions to be killed by hunters each year.)

It is not clear if a hunting season in California would have reduced the nuisance kills, but the number of bear complaints in New Jersey have generally paralleled the state’s on-and-off hunting seasons. When the animals are hunted, complaints go down. Encounters considered the most extreme — home entries, livestock attacks and property damage, for example — by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife decreased 40 percent in 2012, two years after hunts were resumed. 

What is also crystal-clear is hunters were right in many of their claims. Higher bear numbers have resulted in spikes in nuisance complaints. Increased lion numbers have resulted in declines in deer and elk. The number of licenses available to hunters has followed big game populations.

But hunters are directing their anger in the wrong direction. State wildlife agencies are not to blame.

“We’ve done everything within our power to reduce cougar numbers and increase deer numbers. I don’t know what else we could do,” Broman said.

In other words, blame voters in the states that have either elected anti-hunting politicians or who passed anti-hunting ballot measures. But don’t expect any changes in the near future. Despite the increase in problems associated with too many bears and mountain lions, voters still don’t seem interested in reversing the bans they voted for in the past. 

Various bills, for example, have been introduced in California and Oregon that would relax or lift hunting bans. None have passed. There has been no organized attempt to reverse those ballot initiatives, either. Until something changes, big game populations will continue to suffer, bears will keep digging through trash cans and anti-hunters will try to put more restrictions on hunting. 


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