On a recent Saturday night at the Tehama County Fairgrounds, 500 hunters who use hounds were preparing for a fight. "We're your neighbor. We're your friend, your coworker," says Josh Brones with the California Houndsmen for Conservation. "But, we're all freedom-loving Americans who just want to be left alone." They were raising money, auctioning a puppy, raffling off rifles, including some for women and children, to oppose Senate Bill 1221 that would ban the use of dogs in the hunting of bobcats and bears.
Sen. Ted Lieu is sponsoring the bill because he believes outfitting dogs with radio collars violates the concept of a fair chase. "This marauding pack of dogs chasing the bear until the bear's exhausted, bear then climbs up a tree, the hunter notices that [on the] GPS [the] dogs have stopped around one area, hunter goes and looks at the bear and shoots the bear," Lieu said. Lieu took up the issue after State Fish and Game Commission President Dan Richards shot and killed a mountain lion in Idaho using hounds. Mountain lions are protected in California.
Dan Noyes: "What role did the Richards incident play in your decision to go forward with the bill?"
Sen. Lieu: "It brought hounding to my attention. I was not aware that it was allowed in California and even though he had done it in another state, the practice did come to my attention and we were informed about it, and I decided to carry this bill."
About half of the 1,264 black bears legally killed in the state last year were taken using hounds. Hunters argue it's part of the natural balance. "They don't understand that hound hunting is the only, the only form of catch and release hunting," Brones says.
"The vast majority of the time, we're not even carrying a gun," says Dan Tichenor, also with the California Houndsmen for Conservation. He says his hounds have treed 259 bears in the last 25 years and he or his friends shot just 60 of them. He reluctantly admits hounds sometimes catch the bobcat or bear, including the young, before they make it up a tree. "The chances of catching a cub on the ground is extremely remote, so I wonder when I see those videos if they're phony, if they were staged. If they weren't, they're extremely rare. Why would somebody video it?" Tichenor asks.
The Humane Society argues hunters don't always see the impact their dogs have on the bears, including mothers with cubs. "By the time they've got that, the dogs have taken care of moving that mother up a tree. It's totally possible those cubs are long since gone and even if they choose not to take that, they've separated the mother and her cubs. They may never rejoin," says Humane Society Director Jennifer Fearing.
Black bears can be legally hunted with hounds in 18 states including California. Fourteen states allow bear hunting, but prohibit the use of hounds. "While they allow bear hunting, they disallow the use of hounds because it's simply unnecessary for management of bear species, unsporting and unethical," Fearing says.
A poll commissioned last year by the Humane Society found with a 3.5-point margin of error, that 83 percent of Californians oppose the use of hounds in bear hunting. As they get ready for Tuesday's hearing on the hound ban before the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, hunters admit the odds appear to be stacked against them. "In today's world, I would like for Americans to have all the freedoms that they have. Sooner or later, there's going to come a time to where it's not politically correct and we are going to lose this. We all know that," houndsman Frank Dorman said.
But, it's clear from the Tehama County turnout and from hunters whose families have used hounds for generations, that they will not lose without a fight. Asked how strongly he feels about this, houndsman Garrett Fry replied, "It's in my blood and I wouldn't. Next to family, it's what I dream about."
Whatever your viewpoint is, you can get involved in this issue. Leave a comment on the I-Team Blog where you can also find information about the hearing Monday and links to help you contact officials on both sides of the debate.
Dan Noyes will be sending updates from the hearing live on Twitter starting at 9 a.m.