Editorial: No bear hunt without local hearing

We continue to have serious reservations about a proposal by the state Department of Fish and Game to allow bear hunting in San Luis Obispo County — an idea that’s been on the table three times in the past three and a half years.

For starters, we’re disappointed that the agency has so far ignored repeated requests to schedule a local hearing.

The meeting schedule for the next few months includes hearings in Upland/Ontario, Monterey and a teleconference in Sacramento — with our county again noticeably absent from the list.

That strikes us as odd, since lack of a local hearing was a major point of contention last year. There also were concerns about a lack of evidence to justify a hunt. The Fish and Game Commission ultimately decided against expanding the hunt to include San Luis Obispo County last year, after staff said it needed more time to address questions and concerns.

Interestingly, a newly released draft environmental report from Fish and Game acknowledges the public’s negative reaction to expanding the hunt to San Luis Obispo County: “This option has recently generated public opposition and has been identified by the Department as an area of controversy.”

Why, then, would the department want to further alienate local residents by once failing to schedule a hearing here? Expanding bear hunting to San Luis Obispo County is going to be a hard sell as it is — and leaving the public out of the loop makes it that much harder.

It’s true that Fish and Game has gathered more data on the local bear population, and it’s come up with what it terms a conservative estimate of the number of bears here: 1,067.

Yet we wonder, why the urgency? Why make the change at this time? As was the case last year, we’re not aware of any substantial increase in bear vs. human encounters in our county.

For example, Caltrans — which posted bear crossing signs on the Cuesta Grade — reports only two bear-versus-vehicle accidents on the grade between 2006 and 2008.

“Overall, we have had very few incidents along the Cuesta Grade,” a Caltrans official e-mailed us.

Nor are there any glaring red flags in Fish and Game’s draft environmental report. It shows that the number of incidents, bear depredation permits and depredation removals have been holding steady at only one or two per year.

It’s always been our position that a hunt should be authorized based on scientific evidence that the population is growing at a rate that jeopardizes the health of the animals and/or is posing a danger to residents.

We still aren’t convinced the evidence is there — but we welcome Fish and Game officials to come here and make their case before San Luis Obispo County residents.

We strongly urge the commission to schedule a local hearing before it votes on whether to allow bear hunting in our county.