Proposal targets bears again

State wildlife officials have renewed a proposal to open San Luis Obispo County to trophy hunting of black bears.

A large swath of the center of the county would be opened to bear hunting for the first time under the proposal, according to an environmental report released last week. State biologists estimate that 1,067 bears live in the county, and as many as 50 of them a year could be taken if the hunt is authorized.

The San Luis Obispo County hunt is one of a series of proposed changes in big game hunting rules in the state. The state Fish and Game Commission will make the final decision in a teleconference on April 21.

The proposal is similar to one made last year. The commission postponed authorizing that hunt for a year in order to address concerns raised by the public.

That proposal received considerable opposition from animal-rights activists and others who said a hunt is unnecessary. Two county supervisors also complained that the decision was being made without giving county residents an opportunity to comment at a locally held hearing.

The new hearing schedule set by the commission does little to address that concern. Hearings are scheduled to take place in Sacramento, Upland/Ontario and Monterey in the coming months.

The area of the county proposed for the hunt is bound by Highway 1 on the west and Highway 58 and the Salinas River on the east. It contains the county’s prime bear habitat, which consists of the ridges and western slopes of the Santa Lucia and La Panza ranges.

If approved, the bear hunt would be concurrent with the deer season and would run from Sept. 11 to Dec. 26. Nonlead bullets would be required to protect California condors from lead poisoning.Reducing a ‘nuisance’

Based on years of monitoring and data analysis, state biologists believe that the county contains enough bears to sustain a hunt. Bear populations in San Luis Obispo County are similar to those in Santa Barbara County, which already has a bear hunt.

The biologists say hunting could reduce the number of nuisance encounters between bears and people. Equipped with an acute sense of smell and powerful claws, some bears break into homes in search of food. Bears also raid crops and steal pet food.

“The public continues to complain about bears getting into their property,” said Doug Updike, the state’s bear program coordinator. “Several more bears have been killed on the Cuesta Grade.”

Some wildlife groups are lining up to oppose the hunt. They argue that bears are top predators and play a necessary role in the environment.

Critics further point out that bears lack the wide population fluctuations that deer and other prey species experience that can justify hunting. They also note that game warden staffing is down in recent years, making policing of the new hunt more difficult.

“Bears are facing increasing threats from habitat destruction, poaching, expanded trophy hunting and conflicts with people as development encroaches into bear territory,” said Brian Vincent with Big Wildlife, a group that opposes all trophy hunting of carnivores.

Long time coming

A San Luis Obispo County bear hunt is nearly a century in the making.

Black bears are not native to the area. Their larger and more aggressive cousins, grizzly bears, kept them out of the Central Coast.

However, grizzlies were exterminated in the state in the 1920s, leaving the door open for black bears to expand into the area. Biologists believe bears from the southern Sierra Nevada reached the Central Coast via the Tehachapi Mountains.

Once they reached the coast ranges, they began moving north through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. They are now a common sight in many areas of San Luis Obispo County, particularly Lopez Canyon east of Arroyo Grande.

This expansion has allowed the bear population of the state to triple in the past 25 years, Updike said. They are now being regularly sighted in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.