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.