Colorado DOW might consider late-summer bear hunt to prevent stuffing

It’s the middle of spring and what better time to talk about re-instating a spring bear hunt.

Or not, depending on how well the Division of Wildlife listens to the state’s voters.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, a Republican woolgrower from Ignacio, has been shepherding his “Predator Management Regulation” (HB 1294), through the state legislature this past month and last week saw it clear the House Agriculture committee.

It’s now waiting for the House to vote.

Brown has trimmed back what once was a broad-brush approach to more bear hunting by deleting a spring bear hunt, which remains off-target after Colorado voters in 1992 approved Amendment 10.

That citizen initiative, which passed with 72 percent of the vote, banned using bait and dogs to hunt bears and prohibits bear hunting between March 1 and Sept. 1 to protect female bears with dependent cubs.

Brown’s bill leaves the no-dogs and no-bait restrictions intact but gives the Division of Wildlife the ability to establish “appropriate seasonal restrictions” when setting bear-hunting seasons.

For those of you who weren’t around in 1992, and the census says there are about 1.5 million of you, it wasn’t simply animal rights groups that killed spring bear hunting.

By late 1991 the DOW was against the spring bear season, calling it “indefensible” after researchers documented hunters killing mother bears with nursing cubs and the subsequent death of those cubs by starvation, accident or predation.

Brown is touting his bill as a “safety” issue. The bill’s wording refers to an unsubstantiated “explosion” in bear numbers being “a significant public health issue.”

It’s hard to count bears; no one knows how many there are in Colorado, although current estimates say between 8,000 and 12,000.

The DOW has several bear-population studies ongoing to better answer the how-many-bears question.

Currently, there is a September bear season and a later season that runs through late November concurrent with the elk and deer big-game seasons.

Last year, hunters in those seasons killed 799 bears, according to the DOW.

Another 110 or so were killed by wildlife officers, including bears found wounded by hunters or after being hit by vehicles, and those considered to have lost their fear of humans.

In 1992, the last year of the spring hunt, 1,450 hunters killed 483 bears, not counting how many, if any, cubs were lost to the above causes.

But proponents of HB 1294 look not at the harvest number but at success rates of hunters.

That 33-percent success rate in 1992 fell the next year to 7 percent (4,060 hunters killed 278 bears) and hasn’t been in double digits since.

Some proponents of HB 1294 think a season starting June 1, about the time cubs quit nursing, would be late enough in the summer that cubs would be less susceptible to hunters.

“By that time the cubs are running with the sows and hunters can see them together,” said Denny Behrens of the Colorado Mule Deer Association. “The regulations already say you can’t shoot a female with cubs.”

But there already is plenty of opportunity, if license sales are any indication.

Between 1972 and 1992, bear hunters killed an average of 498 bears a year.

After 1992, that average jumped to 608 per year, not including other forms of mortality.

Last year, the DOW sold 9,546 bear tags, the most since 2004, after the wildlife commission sharply raised bear quotas.

That only 8 percent of those hunters were successful doesn’t say much about the bear population but something about hard it was for hunters to find and kill bears.

Most of those licenses went during the elk and deer season, considered a time of opportunity for hunters not really looking for a bear but willing to kill one should it walk into camp.

Behrens and others say the success rate would climb if an early bear season were established.

“It would get hunters out there when bears were causing problems and also reduce conflicts with the archery and blackpowder hunters,” Behrens said.

However, during a recent hearing in the House Ag committee, the DOW testified that human-bear conflicts are rare and the number of such “negative interactions” hasn’t changed much since 1992 in spite of more publicity.

Randy Hampton said the DOW is not considering a spring hunt at all.

“We understand that in 1992, 72 percent of the voters said they are not in favor of a spring bear hunt and we will respect that,” he said.

He said what the DOW might consider (and emphasize “might”) is some sort of late-summer hunt to prevent some of the conflicts when bears are stuffing themselves right before hibernation.

That’s when bears get into trouble, often in an urban setting where hunting is not a possibility.

The late-summer option “may shift some of the mortality that is occurring away from our officers and to sportsmen,” Hampton said.

“We would much rather sportsmen have the opportunity to harvest these bears rather than have our officers kill them,” he said.


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