Hunting has also grown in popularity during the pandemic. More and more hunters bought licenses and took up hunting as an excuse to get out and get away from the crowds.
Meanwhile, wildfires have closed national forests for weeks over the past two hunting seasons, meaning hunters have had fewer opportunities to find a bear. Holley said most bear tag holders also don’t target bears aggressively when they go out.
“This spike (in bear tag sales) is probably due to deer hunters saying, ‘You know what? I see more legal bears than legal cash when hunting in the wild, so might as well buy a tag bear in case I come across one,” he said.
Bear populations also appear to be doing well, Holley said, despite fires in recent years that have scorched millions of acres.
State officials estimate that in 1982 the statewide bear population was between 10,000 and 15,000 bears. Holley’s agency says the black bear population is now “conservatively estimated” at between 30,000 and 40,000 animals.
In California, bear populations have increased to the point of appearing in new areas, including places where wildfires haven’t affected their movements, Holley said.
As their range expands, bears come into conflict with people as they search for garbage, pet food, and other human-provided meals. Rising bear conflict across the state has prompted the state to hire employees to help deal with the influx of calls to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to report bear encounters. .
These types of conflicts became particularly pronounced last summer in the Tahoe region, where biologists say the population has reached some of the highest densities in the country. For years bears have been breaking into homes in Tahoe and attacks on people occur from time to time.
During the Caldor Fire, authorities reported a huge spike in home and vehicle break-ins and other bear encounters in the South Lake Tahoe area as it was evacuated for several days.
Meanwhile, mother bears are still regularly spotted across the state with three or even four cubs, Holley said, a sign of healthy bear habitat since the species has evolved to have fewer or no bears. cubs when food is scarce.
Fires in recent years have undoubtedly killed some bears and pushed others out of their home ranges, Holley said, but not to the extent that the few bears killed by hunters each year would harm all of population.
“Now, if we continue to have, you know, fire after fire after fire after fire of the kind of magnitude that we’ve had for the past two summers, yeah, we’re going to have to take a closer look at that and see if.. .if there are any downward trends in the population,” Holley said. “But right now we don’t see it.”
Scientists debate bear population
Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis, is skeptical.
He said he thinks further study is needed, especially since the state is reporting a record number of bear kills on the side of highways, which could signal problems for bears as they are driven from their home range by forest fires and drought. .
He said he would be “surprised if the state had enough information to make an accurate estimate of the bear population,” and that the statewide estimate that exists should not justify the bear hunt, which he opposes.
Instead, if hunting is to be allowed in a state as large and diverse as California, he said, it should only be allowed in specific regions where the bear population has been widely studied.
“I don’t know why you would allow anything to be hunted without knowing how many there are,” Shilling said.
But Jon Beckmann, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno, isn’t concerned that hunters are killing too many or that the fires are harming bear populations.
He has studied Tahoe Basin black bears extensively with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a research-based nonprofit. He says from what he’s seen in the field, the state’s black bear population is doing very well.
For example, in the Tahoe area, he said there are so many bears that they are about to reach their biological “carrying capacity”, which means there are almost too many. so that the habitat can support them.
“Black bears,” he said, “would be one of the least concerning for the various species in the state of California that I would have at this point.”
Fires can cause short-term losses to bear populations, but burned habitat tends to create healthier long-term populations, said Roger Baldwin, a University of California, Davis biologist who has studied black bears.
He said the fires stimulate the regrowth of berry bushes and other plants that are vital food sources for bears after emerging from hibernation in the spring.
Additionally, felled and burned wood quickly becomes loaded with larvae and termites which are a key source of protein for voracious omnivores, which can grow to over 400 pounds.
“It will be an ideal habitat for the bears,” Baldwin said, “because they will get all kinds of food resources.”
The five-member Fish and Game Commission, whose members are appointed by the Governor of California, will consider the Humane Society’s petition at its meeting scheduled for February 16-17.
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