The Story Behind an Unusual Opportunity.
There are two facts necessary to get out of the way to tell this story effectively. The first fact is that California’s bear population is booming, in spite of drought and continued human encroachment into the bears’ habitat. The big reason for the dramatic increase is that the use of hounds for hunting of bears in the state was banned in 2012, reducing the annual number shot by hunters to between 500 and 600 bears. The population has skyrocketed, and their range has been expanding dramatically ever since. Combined with a 10-year-plus drought that has helped disperse animals seeking food, the bears are showing up in places they have never been seen before. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) annual season-closing harvest quota of 1,700 bears has not been met since the use of hounds was banned, and the estimated statewide population has climbed from less than 27,000 animals in 2010 to nearly 37,000 bears in 2016.
The annual bear harvest during the 2012 season, the last season before the ban took effect, was 1,962 bears – very close to the all-time record of 2,029 bears killed in 2008. The CDFW’s population modeling and harvest numbers show that bear numbers have been tracking upward since 1983, but the growth has been dramatic (with no decline) in the past five years.
In the four seasons since the use of hounds was banned,an average of 1,219 bears a year have been killed. Before the ban, the average over the previous 12 years was 1,776. Because hunting over bait has never been legal in the state, all of these bears have been killed by still-hunting, sitting on stands or calling. Because bear seasons are concurrent with deer seasons in most of the state, about half of the bears were taken by hunters while deer hunting.
The second, little-known fact is that some of the largest black bears in North America come from California. Bears weighing in the 600- to 700-pound range have been taken within 60 miles of downtown Los Angeles, and trophy bears from 350 to 450 pounds are taken each year in decent numbers all across the state.
This is a story about two of those huge bears killed in what may have been once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for two California hunters.
Ron Gayer (the guides guide to hunting.com) is a California guide who lives in Bakersfield and guides mostly for turkey and wild hogs on ranches northeast of his home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The area is mostly comprised of oak grassland that has been cattle-grazing country for well over a century. Bears are annual visitors to the area where he hunts, but a unique set of circumstances came together to drive dozens and dozens of bears into the oaks on the ranches he hunts in 2016: First, there was the massive Cedar Fire in the Sequoia National Forest at higher elevations above the ranches Gayer hunts. It left the hills bare of forage for bears and other wildlife, forcing them to move out of the burned areas. Second, there was a bumper acorn crop last fall that attracted both bears and wild hogs into the area. It was the first time the trees had produced any acorns in more than three years of drought.
By early fall, Gayer started seeing bears and lots of bear sign in the oaks on every trip into the mountains, including a couple of big bears. After consulting with ranch owners, Gayer called some of his long-time clients to see if they might be interested in a bear hunt.
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September - October 2017