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An attempt to end bear hunting in California failed last week. Regardless of how you feel about bear hunting, whether you hunt bears, or whether you live in California, some really important things happened during deliberations at the California Fish and Game Commission, and I think it’s worth your time to hear about them.

If you want to see my source materials, I link to them at the end of this post, where I also have a video (a 9:41 highlights reel from a 3-hour hearing). Substack tells me this post is about an 11-minute read, but I think you’ll find it easy to skip around if you’re short on time.

Before I start, I’d like to thank my friend J.R. Young, who’s vice-chair of the North American board for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which fought the petition to halt bear hunting. J.R. and I had a great conversation about the F&G Commission meeting that drew my attention to some key points.

Late last year, the Humane Society of the U.S. petitioned the F&G Commission for a moratorium on bear hunting, based in substantial part on state reports that seemed to indicate the state’s bear population was declining precipitously. This is part of a nationwide campaign using whatever hook they can find in any given state.

Interestingly, they missed, or chose to overlook, information in not just the same report, but the same paragraph they cited as evidence of population decline.

The model used for estimating bear populations assumes consistent hunter effort. When hunting bears over hounds was banned in 2013 (instigated by HSUS), it resulted in fewer bears being killed because it’s harder to be successful without hounds. This creates the appearance, in the state’s model, of a declining bear population. But the report says clearly: “(T)he Department expects that the reduced population estimates are solely (emphasis added) an artifact of the model’s constraints.”

The basis of F&G’s rejection of the HSUS petition was a robust discussion of the flaws with that population model and the abundance of other empirical evidence that bear populations are NOT in decline.

It is heartening that science won, but it is no reason to relax in this state. Science usually wins at the F&G Commission, but not in the Legislature or in the voting booth. God help us, anyone with enough money to collect signatures can get an initiative on the ballot, and if they also have enough money for advertising, they can usually win – it’s scary.

HSUS likes to slap the word “trophy” on any kind of hunting they’re trying to eliminate. They know surveys show very low approval ratings when a trophy is the motivation. Conversely, meat as motivation gets the highest approval ratings.

So when a commission member asked the HSUS envoy to this meeting, Wendy Keefover, whether the organization would support bear hunting if the data showed there were a huge bear population of 50,000, this was her answer:

Are we ever going to be in favor of bear trophy hunting? No. The Humane Society of the United States will not support bear trophy hunting.

Her answer left no room for the possibility that anyone hunts bears for any reason other than a trophy.

Another member asked her how HSUS defines trophy hunting. Brace yourself…

Our definition is where the primary motivation of the hunter is to kill an animal in order to obtain body parts or to be photographed with that animal for bragging rights. The primary motivation is not for food. While some hunters may eat a bear, that’s not the primary motivation. The primary motivation is a trophy.

Some hunters may eat a bear? Please.

As for the motivations she assumes, I’m not surprised. I’ve had friends presume to know my hunting motivations better than I do. A great article by Paul McCarney in Hunt To Eat magazine covered research on this phenomenon, known as the illusion of asymmetric insight, in which (loosely quoting):

  • We think we know others better than others know us.

  • We think we know ourselves better than others know themselves.

  • We sometimes even think we know others better than they know themselves, but never the reverse.

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Obviously, our motivations for hunting are complex, and I think it behooves us to be honest about them, even though honesty and nuance are harder for skeptics to grok than slogans. Meat is not my only motivation, but it was my primary motivation for starting hunting, and if I didn’t take complete joy in eating wild meat, I would not hunt.

The extent to which meat is motivation varies from hunter to hunter. But HSUS overstated on a galactic scale the motivational force of killing a “trophy” animal. The truth is the vast majority of us don’t care. It’s nice to get an animal that’s an outlier, but not essential, at all.

One hunter who spoke at the meeting, Mike Costello, countered Keefover elegantly.

If a picture was the primary purpose to hunt, I believe most hunters would be opposed.

Humans are hunters and storytellers, from cave paintings to Instagram. Humans communicate through artifacts and images. After the meat has been consumed and the hunt is just a memory, an artifact or a picture does NOT invalidate the value of the animal or the hunt or the community involved.

Would the petitioner vilify ancestral communities as trophy hunters because of their storytelling through cave paintings? Humans celebrate many things through pictures, and hunting is human.

Mike, I love you.

Charles Whitwam was a HUGE force last year in getting a San Francisco lawmaker to pull his bill to ban bear hunting – he mobilized a massive outpouring of hunter response, and ended up starting an organization to continue mobilizing hunters, Howl For Wildlife.

When he spoke at the hearing last week, here’s a key thing he said:

This crusade (against the petition) has been as much about defending sustenance, conservation, and wildlife from irresponsible and harmful proposals as it has been about defending cultures (and) humanity, and against the silencing of marginalized communities (emphasis added).

There is a lot to digest in this statement, but I’d like to focus on something I thought was courageous: the focus on hunters as a marginalized community.

Hunters in California represent less than 1% of the population, the lowest percentage in the country – something hunting critics like to throw in our face. We are considered, by many, fair game to bash or persecute. And I believe at least part of the reason we’re considered fair game is because hunters are made up overwhelmingly, for now, of white males, who are also considered fair game for bashing these days.

I learned an interesting lesson about declaring white people fair game 1990s, when I was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. At the time, we were the largest newspaper in the country with a Black publisher, Jay Harris.

One day, the main feature of our food section was a cheeky piece on “white trash cooking.” Jay took the highly unusual step of sending an email to the entire staff condemning this piece. In essence, he said the fact that as a nation, we were making great strides in acknowledging and appreciating non-white cultures did not make it acceptable to mock or bash white cultures.

I don’t think a white publisher could have said the same thing and achieved the same respectful listening. That’s why I think it was ballsy of Charles to put this card on the table in last week’s debate – I could see a lot of people, in this state especially, dismissing out of hand a white man talking about his minority status.

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And lest anyone get the wrong idea about me, I am a vocal and fierce proponent of ethnic diversity and respect for all people.

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The final vote to reject the petition was 3-0, but the closing comments were as important as the vote.

Let’s start with commission member Eric Sklar:

(This is) not a debate about trophy hunting – that’s illegal in California. … I’m convinced, especially now, that bear hunters, because it’s the law, eat the meat, and that’s a really important thing to me. It’s a value. It’s both a law and a value, and that’s been a consistent position of mine.

My first vote of import on this commission was over bobcats, and the science led me to believe we should ban trapping, but also that it’s not for consumption – it’s for clothing, it’s for vanity. So values do enter into it, to a degree.

I cringed at the suggestion that the only reason bear hunters eat the meat is the law, though I think he was just trying to highlight the fact that California’s wanton waste law prohibits hunters from leaving usable meat in the field.

I’m much more interested in the bigger, dual takeaway, and these are my words:

1) Values matter2) Hunters actually have values!

Most hunters hold very strong values about what, how and why we kill. I think “eat what you kill” is a lesson taught to most young hunters by their parents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories about the first thing a little boy (usually a boy) killed with his BB gun, and how his dad (usually his dad) said, “OK, son, now you’re going to eat it.”

And I think meat is main driver of adult-onset hunters. We don’t need to be told to eat what we kill; for us, it’s the whole point of killing.

Yes, there are some hunters who don’t eat what they kill, whether it’s because they’re trapping to obtain fur or hunting a mountain lion for – gonna say it – the trophy. But I have heard over and over that the meat in those cases usually gets used. I hear lion-hunting guides eat a lot of lion meat if their clients won’t take it, and fur trappers make a lot of pet food from anything they trap but don’t eat. And there is plenty of discussion on Hank’s Hunt Gather Cook group on Facebook about how to cook bobcat and mountain lion.

Personally, I am not super comfortable with trophy hunting, or with hunters not eating what they kill. But I’m also not willing to throw them under the bus, because I know the fact that they don’t share my values doesn’t mean they don’t have values (as detailed in the post below – also, coincidentally, centered on bear hunting).

This actually highlights a reason we shouldn’t get too excited about Sklar’s discussion of values: Exactly whose values dictate our policy decisions? Last week it was ours; next time, we might not be so lucky.

But for now, the value of eating what we kill is enjoying a moment in the sun in California. This is the culmination of years of efforts by many hunters, hunting writers and influencers, and hunters who are television celebrities (including my friend Andrew Zimmern, who’s also on Substack) to highlight the incredible food value of wild game.

Finally, let’s get to commission President Samantha Murray’s comments. I give her a lot of room in the video below, but here are her key points:

I personally believe in hunting. I think it’s a natural way to eat meat. I know for sure hunting and fishing are important ways for young people and (all) people to connect with nature and cultivate a healthy respect and love for the outdoors.

I appreciate that! Hat tip to Minnesota, where she grew up eating venison. But here’s where I really cheered:

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that just because 99% of people don’t do something, we should say that no one should… Most people don’t hunt, most people don’t fish. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t have the ability to do it. For me that’s not what democracy means, right? It doesn’t mean the majority limits activities of individuals who are in the minority just because they’re in the minority. I think there has to be a compelling reason to do so, like when habitat or wildlife or people are at risk, or when it would bring a significant benefit to wildlife or habitat.

This wasn’t just a response to what Charles Whitwam said. Supporters of the petition have cited the minority status of California hunters, and especially California bear hunters – only 31,447 bear tags were sold last year in a state of over 39 million people.

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If you live in a place like Alaska, Montana, Texas or Wisconsin, where hunters are a much larger part of the population, it may not be obvious how important Murray’s statement is. But speaking from the state where we are the tiniest minority, it’s huge. It’s official acknowledgment that our small numbers shouldn’t invalidate our rights.

The trendline on the number of hunters in this country is generally moving downward, notwithstanding a healthy Covid bump in 2020. It correlates strongly with the continuing population shift in America from rural to urban areas, which means no state is immune to it.

And even in the huntin’est of states, hunters are already a minority. We’re just becoming moreso as time moves on.

Murray’s declaration that it is wrong to strip minorities of rights, and Sklar’s recognition that we are, in fact, driven by values, are recognitions that hunters in every state may well eventually need.

If you enjoyed this post, please be sure to give it a “like” by clicking the heart icon at the top or bottom. And if it made you say anything out loud to your screen – even if it was in disagreement with me – remember that paid subscribers can leave comments. The discussion with our community at To The Bone is every bit as important as the posts we write.

Apologies in advance for the poor video quality – this is drawn from a Zoom recording.

If you have time, I think the whole thing is interesting, but here’s where you’ll find fuller excerpts from the quotes above:

  • 00:27 HSUS rep Wendy Keefover’s comments about trophy hunting bears

  • 01:14 Mike Costello’s comments about photos and artifacts

  • 01:59 Charles Whitwam’s comments about hunters as a marginalized minority

  • 05:50 Eric Sklar’s comments about bear hunters eating the meat

  • 07:27 Samantha Murray’s comments about denying rights to minorities

Official Documents Received by the Commission (PDF).

  • Humane Society of the U.S. petition starts at page 14.

  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife response memo and meeting PowerPoint begins on page 89.

  • Letters for and against the petition, including one from 25 organizations opposed to it, starts on page 121.

  • Fish & Game Commission analysis of petition begins on page 154.

State Bear Harvest Reports Cited by HSUS

Here’s the one where they conveniently overlooked the statement that the apparent bear population decline likely isn’t an actual decline – center paragraph on page 13.

Here’s the page with links to all bear reports.

Full video of meeting

Discussion of the bear petition – and other petitions – starts at the 5:14:06 mark. The Department of Fish and Wildlife presentation begins at 05:23:30. Commission member final comments on the petition begin around the 8:18:25 mark. Yeah, long meeting!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>