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Siskiyou Plus Spring Bear Hunt: What lies beneath?

As Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) prepares to meet in Central Point on Friday, there’s much left unsaid about the proposed “Siskiyou Plus Spring Bear Hunt”, an agenda item that will constitute a major departure from existing policy.

If approved, the hunt adds completely new provisions singling out Jackson, Josephine, Curry and Douglas counties in Oregon’s 2014-2015 big game regulations. ODFW spokesman Tom Thornton, game program manager, cites concerns of local timber interests and tree farmers as the motivation for creating the new hunt.

This hunt adds 250 tags to the spring season that runs from April 1 through May 31 in the named counties. The intent, Thornton says, is to draw bear hunters from elsewhere in the state to our communities during a season hunters find especially attractive, but neither humane nor other costs of this hunt have been considered or disclosed to the public.

ODFW would have citizens believe that hunters abide by prohibitions against taking female bears with dependent cubs. But because spring bears rarely travel with cubs, not even the most experienced hunters can identify sows (female bears) with dependent cubs. Oregon’s stats confirm only a 5 percent difference from spring to fall in the number of females killed as a percent of the total hunt. This result matches the results of systematic investigations in other states.

For example, Tom Beck, Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDW) bear biologist (now retired), reported that CDW determined the percentage of nursing sows killed during their spring hunt was equal to the total percentage of nursing sows in their state’s bear population, proving that hunters were not discriminating. Furthermore, data collected by the state in Virginia demonstrated that hunters cannot determine the sex of treed bears.

But ODFW’s Thornton dismisses the idea that hunters can’t tell the difference. It’s his opinion that it’s a mere matter of opinion. When I asked him if he could tell me with certainty how many cubs are orphaned in spring as result of the preexisting spring hunt, he responded that Oregon does not keep any count of bear cubs or track their mortality in any way.

Few hunters — and fewer citizens — consider it humane or sporting to take bears when they are nursing cubs. In fact, 20 of the 28 states permitting bear hunts do not permit spring seasons, not only because the gender of bears can’t be reliably determined but also because peer-reviewed research has found that 100 percent of spring-orphaned cubs starve to death or die of other causes within 30 days.

What happens to the very few hunters that knowingly disregard the rules? Obviously, it’s impossible to follow hunters around the mountains, or devote time to make case-by-case inquiries; ODFW relies on self-reporting by hunters. “Suspicious” cases are referred to the Oregon State Police for investigation.

A Medford game warden told me he could not personally recall any investigations of improper taking of a lactating bear in his years with the department, and added that unless orphaned cubs were found, there would be no reasonable suspicion to start an investigation. Considering that 30 percent of bears killed in the spring are female (virtually the same percentage as in the fall hunt), that seems surprising.

Does Southern Oregon really have that many bears? Many ecologists believe Oregon’s bear numbers might be dangerously close to the minimum needed for genetic health. These experts explain that droughts and fires have made food so scarce that bears are pulled to our communities by the lure of easy meals. These hungry bears among us create an appearance that there are more bears than there actually are.

As for timber damage, even ODFW admits in its official Black Bear Management Plan that significant timber damage by bears occurs not in normal forests but mainly in the monoculture of tree farms where other bear foods such as grasses and berries have all been destroyed to plant more trees more closely, sucking profits from our public lands at the expense of the public’s bears.

What will ODWF’s ruling be? Once again forests and bears could be collateral damage for the greater good of profiteers.

D.I. Catalina of Grants Pass is a senior volunteer researching black bear management policies for the Humane Society of the United States.