SACRAMENTO (AP) — Hundreds of animal lovers and hunters packed the Capitol on Tuesday to testify about a bill seeking to ban the use of dogs to hunt bears and bobcats in California, legislation that arose after a top state fish and game official drew heat for killing a mountain lion during a legal hound-hunting trip in Idaho.
The crowd overflowed two committee rooms and filled the building's two cafeterias before SB1221 by Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu passed its first committee test on a 5-3 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Supporters say hound hunters use packs of dogs, often equipped with radio collars, to chase wild animals until they tire and run up a tree. The dogs used for this type of hunting are sometimes mistreated, they say.
"It's described as mild," Lieu, of Torrance, said before the committee voted. "This is not mild. You've got running dogs chasing a bear and-or bobcat. It's not mild because sometimes the bear fights back and kills the dogs or injures them. It's not mild because sometimes the dogs will tear apart the bobcat. And it's not mild because the bear runs and runs and runs until the bear is exhausted and climbs up a tree and the hunter goes and shoots the bear."
Lieu's office said several other states already ban the practice, including Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Animal rights activists say it is inhumane for both the dogs and the wild animals they chase.
Hunters said a ban would infringe on a long-time sport and remove a tool for managing wildlife. Opponents wore orange pins reading "Revenge is not the answer," a reference to the chairman of the state game commission, who angered animal-rights activists earlier this year when he was photographed with a mountain lion he shot while using hounds during a legal hunt in Idaho.
It is illegal to hunt mountain lions in California.
Republican Sen. Doug LaMalfa said hunting is an issue for communities in rural parts of California to manage. He said banning the practice would have a devastating economic impact in some counties.
"We really have a good process here with the Fish and Game Commission and the Department of Fish and Game closely monitoring the impact of hunting. I'm an animal lover myself; I hate to see abuse, whether it's the wildlife or the hounds," said LaMalfa, of Willows. "By and large, the vast majority of folks are trying to have good conservation practices."
According to state wildlife officials, California has an estimated black bear population of about 30,000, which has grown from about 10,000 in the 1980s. Between 1,500 and 1,800 bears are killed each year by hunters but less than half of those were hunted with dogs.
The state last year issued about 4,500 tags to hunt bobcats, which number about 70,000 statewide. About 11 percent of the bobcats killed in California were killed with the use of dogs.
The figures do not include illegal killings by poachers.
Josh Brones, president of the California Houndsmen for Conservation, estimated there were between 600 and 700 opponents of the bill who came from throughout the state.
Animal rights activists, led by the Humane Society of the United States, estimated their crowd of about 200.
Brones said many states don't have hound hunting because many states don't have bears. He said the method allows hunters to select the bears they kill, which allows them to release nursing female bears if they happen to catch one.
"More often than not, the bobcats are usually left in the tree unharmed. They can go on about their day," Brones said. "For those that do intend to take a bear, bear is a very delicious, very nutritious (meat). It's organic, free range, stress-free, hormone-free."
Apache Daklugie Running Hawk, a Native American spiritual adviser from Mescalero, N.M., came to support the ban, saying bears are sacred.
"All our four-legged brothers and sisters were here before us," he said.
He added: "We keep building, and we're pushing them out."
Cheri Shankar, a member of Humane Society's National Council, said the bill was not drafted in retaliation to Dan Richards, president of the Fish and Game Commission. She said it was about the welfare of the animals.
"It's not about revenge, it's about awareness," she said.
Jess Cook, 55, of Tollhouse, Calif., just east of Fresno, said legislation is not needed when the state has wildlife experts.
The Department of Fish and Game "does a better job managing the bear population than the Humane Society," Cook said.