Sunday, October 18, 2015

California and the rural way of life: Part I - Hunting

California has the greatest population of all the states in the US.  California has a population of almost 39 million people and has approximately 1.9 million rural residents.  Due to this fact, few people consider the effects of state government on the rural population and their way of life.  Many rural Californians feel that they do not have a voice in their own government and many distrust the politicians in Sacramento (for more posts on this topic, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  This is the first of a series of blog posts highlighting some of the past and current issues that rural Californians have with the state government.  At the conclusion of this series, I will discuss possible solutions that might allow the rural population to receive more consideration from their elected representatives as it pertains to rural issues.

The first topic that I will discuss is hunting.  As I have discussed in a previous blog post, hunting has long been associated with American heritage and rurality and generates a lot of revenue in California (see here for blog post and other links on this subject).  In 2011, 467,000 people hunted in the state of California, and fishing and hunting expenditures accounted for $3.7 billion spent in California alone (for more stats, see here).  Much of this revenue is spent in "small, rural businesses."  In this post, I will discuss two laws that have limited the opportunities for hunters in California.  By limiting the species that can be hunted and the method of taking game, these laws could affect the amount of revenue generated from hunting, as well as the income of rural residents.

In 1972, the California Department of Fish and Game estimated that there might be as few as 600 mountain lions left in the state (see article here).  This low number was due, in part, to bounties that were paid for each cat killed prior to 1972.  In that year, Governor Ronald Reagan issued a five-year moratorium on all sport hunting of mountain lions.  This moratorium was extended for a total of 15 years.  In the years between 1987 and 1990, public support for a ban on mountain lion hunting grew with the help of the Mountain Lion Foundation.  In 1990, Proposition 117 banned the sport hunting of mountain lions and provided a $30 million per year habitat conservation fund for thirty years.  According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Department of Fish and Game) mountain lions are not presently threatened nor endangered in the state and the numbers of cats is relatively high (see here).

More recently, on Jan. 1, 2013, California passed Senate Bill 1221 making it the 16th state to ban the practice of hunting black bears with dogs (the law also banned using dogs to hunt bobcats).  The reasoning behind this new law was because of the perception that this practice is inhumane and cruel to the animals.  When hunting bears with dogs, the dogs pick up on a bear's scent and then start to track/chase the bear, which usually ends up climbing a tree.  The hunter then shoots the bear out of the tree.  California Senator, Ted Lieu, whose bill banned this practice, compared shooting a bear this way to shooting a bear in a zoo (see here).  However, there is more to the hunt that just walking up to a tree and shooting the bear.  In order to be successful, a hunter has to have trained his dogs to identify a bear's scent, and he/she has to be able to follow the dogs for miles and miles over terrain that is often rough and steep.  Bear hunting can be dangerous for the dogs as well if the bear decides fight instead of flee.  Although rare, dogs can be killed by the bears they chase. 

The population of black bears in California has grown by approximately 10,000 since the 1980s. California uses population estimates to set a quota of bears that can be taken each year.  In 2012, the year before the ban, hunters reached the annual quota of 1,700 bears two and a half weeks early.  At least 42% of all bears were taken with the assistance of dogs.  In 2013, the first year that banned the use of dogs for hunting, only 1,078 bears were taken.  Although, the number of bear tags that were sold was similar for 2012 and 2013, there was a 45.1% decrease in the bear harvest numbers between the two years. 

Although the initial moratorium on mountain lion hunting was to save the species existence in California (which I think was a great decision), the ban was more about people's uneasiness (and sometimes disgust) with the practice of killing mountain lions (see here for a story about what happened when a California Fish and Game Commissioner legally hunted a mountain lion in Idaho).  Banning bear hunting with dogs was attributable solely to the public outcry that claimed that this practice was inhumane and cruel (population of bears had been growing).  The proponents of such laws usually lack the firsthand knowledge and experience with these types of hunting techniques, and they fail to consider the effect on the people that either pursue this activity or do business with people that do.

In most states, predator and prey species are managed to ensure steady populations of both.  An overabundance of prey species can wreak havoc on the habitat as they search for food and can cause problems when they come in close contact with human populations (see NY Times article here).  If the habitat is overgrazed/foraged, the lack of food can cause the animals to starve or freeze to death in the winter.  An overabundance of predator species can devastate prey species (like deer), and just like prey species, many predators can starve or freeze to death in the winter because they are too weak and lack fat reserves.  Sometimes starving predators come into cities to search for food.  This can lead to scary or dangerous interactions with people.  The predators can also kill family pets for food.  By outright banning hunting mountain lions and limiting the ability to harvest bears for population management, the risk of overpopulation is higher.  If hunting a bear with dogs is inhumane, then allowing populations to go unchecked and allowing animals to die a slow death from starvation or freezing is undoubtedly inhumane. 

For centuries, people have been using dogs to hunt bears in the United States.  Throughout my life I have known several bear hunters who used dogs to hunt.  To them, bear season is (or was) the highlight of their year.  They would keep their dogs in good shape year round and think about opening day months in advance.  The focus of these bear hunters was to get to the bear as quickly as possible so they can make the decision whether or not to take the bear and to ensure the safety of their dogs.  If the bear is not the age or sex they are looking for, many will take their dogs away and let the bear escape.  By treeing a bear, the hunter can also get a better shot at it and ensure a clean, quick kill.  Very rarely, dogs are killed, and that is tragic.  However, denying the dogs the opportunity to do what is in their blood (humans bred them that way) seems cruel to me.  The dogs are worked into a frenzy of excitement when they realize that they are going hunting, and they seem to love to spend all day with their noses to the ground.  The dogs usually seem more excited than the hunter.  Now that using dogs is banned in California, these dogs do not have the opportunity to do what they are bred to do.  The owners can take them out of state to hunt, but that can be too expensive for many and also very time consuming.  

Hunters spend a lot of money on their dogs and equipment and travel through small rural communities as they make their way to their hunting camps.  By making it illegal both to hunt mountain lions (even as a way of population control) and to hunt bears with dogs, California has limited a source of revenue for these small towns as well as tax revenue for the state itself (for further discussion of the economics of hunting, see here).  Further, the money spent on tags and for tag drawings is used to fund wildlife management programs.  Although it is unknown if the number of bear tags will decrease in the future, it is clear that no additional revenue from mountain lion tags will supplement mountain lion research and management.


Daniel Quinley said...

I recently went to a talk here at King Hall with one of the lobbyists who was key to getting the ban on dog hunting passed. It was interesting to hear the perception of hunters from someone who was not one. The thing that struck me was the argument that some hunters wanted to distance themselves from the dog hunters, because they considered the practice unsportsmanlike. While I think that such a belief is certainly an argument for not participating in the practice, it shouldn't be used as an argument to force others to disengage from the practice as well.

As someone who grew up hunting, I have my own set of morals and practices--and they sometimes are very different from other recreational hunters (I think a lot that came from the belief in hunting as a source of food more than as a source of sport). But, it seems that using a sub-set of the hunting community as a hard line in determining what is ethical and what isn't is incredibly problematic, and symptomatic of fundamental urban misunderstandings of rural culture. Hunting is not a single thing--it is multifaceted. And there are cultural practices bound up in the practice that go beyond sport. Understanding all of these facets, and not simply focusing on a single factor that is "tasteful" to the urban politicians is critical if rural residents are to become more visible to the urban elite.

Dakota Sinclair said...

I have always found dog hunting interesting. I am easily one of those doting people who would never want nor allow my dogs to engage in hunting down bears, or even perform the function they were bred for, herding cattle. In part because they're pets and I don't want them harmed. But to many dog hunters the hunt is a way of life and recalls the era when dog hunting was done not for pleasure but out of necessity. Bears and lions are dangerous to small communities, herds, and farms. Hunters were highly regarded for their skill in destroying a dangerous threat to the local area.

On the other hand many people see the trophy hunters and feel the sour bile of distaste. Men and women posing with rifles or bows stacked atop their fallen victim. In part this may be the fault of social media and the ease someone can take a bad picture that is poorly thought out and post to Facebook. It could also be the Disney effect of personifying animals as fully thinking and talking creatures. When I see a deer, I think food. My exceedingly vegan friend has referred to deer as her friends and has tried to talk to them on nature hikes.

Getting back on point, I would consider the bans on dog hunting to be troublesome. In southern California mountain lions have been known to stalk and kill joggers. They will enter backyards and kill pets. The wildlife management of the state is slightly out of control because the prey population is controlled by predators on all sides but the predators are not being controlled. If dog hunting would help with that I would be comfortable with it being done in an ethical manner.

As Dan points out hunting is multifaceted and it becomes complex once ethics are involved. It seems the legislature applied its own version of ethics to the situation and moved on, ignoring the thoughts and opinions of rural areas and hunters.