Two proposals before regulators this week could align Nevada’s wildlife management policies more closely with the desires of the state’s residents, many of whom have little tolerance for hunting and trapping.
On Friday, the Commission will consider a ban on bear hounding, a practice critics say is abusive not only to bears but to the dogs deployed to chase them.
On Saturday, spurred by a resolution from the Clark County Commission, regulators will decide whether to outlaw wildlife killing contests, in which hunters are rewarded for stacking up the most dead animals.
“While those contests are often about coyotes in Clark County, across Nevada they target other species, too, including jack rabbits, fox, bobcats, raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, mountain lions, and wolves,” says wildlife advocate Fred Voltz.
Of the 139 bears killed by hunters since 2011 in Nevada, 99 bears, or 71 percent, were hounded, according to a report from the Nevada Division of Wildlife. Of the 45 female bears killed in that time, 64 percent were hunted with hounds.
It’s Cathy Smith’s third effort to stop hounding since the bear hunt began.
Smith says she “always supported wildlife agencies, making the assumption that they always acted in ways to benefit wildlife.”
“I never knew that anyone would even hunt bears. I went to my first commission meeting just prior to the hunt. Since that time, I have had quite the education,” Smith says. “I felt betrayed by the agency. I learned of the strong hunter bias and that the agency was completely captured by hunting, ranching, and farming interests.”
She says she has “no illusions” the petition, which she calls “low hanging fruit,” will be voted down.
“I needed to demonstrate that the wildlife commission is so biased that no one from my perspective has a chance,” she says.
The Wildlife Commission, by statute, is comprised primarily of hunting interests.
Ann Bryant, executive director of BEAR League, a California non-profit, says most but not all bears in Nevada are “taken down by hounds.”
Hunters who employ hounds to chase their prey up a tree say the practice allows them to assess the gender and size of the bear before deciding whether to kill it.
“It’s an excuse to justify their blood lust — their thrill of the kill with the hounds,” said Bryant. “All they look for is a pretty good size one with a nice coat. Maybe they want a brown one that year. Or a blonde.”
Biologists contend hunters misidentify the gender of approximately one-third of treed bears, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Data compiled by the Western Black Bear Workshop in 2018 indicates little difference in the percentage of female bears killed in the western states, regardless of hounding policy.
In California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, states that ban hounding, 35.4 percent of hunted bears are female. In Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada, where hounding is allowed, 34.8 percent of hunted bears are female.
“Hunters say they can tell if a treed bear has cubs,” says Bryant. “A mother bear who hears dogs chases her cubs up a tree and tells them to be quiet while she lures the dogs away from the cubs.”
“Hunters can’t tell if she has cubs,” she says. “They kill mother bears quite often. We’re out there rescuing the cubs after hunting season.”
“Hound hunting is the best and most efficient way to harvest bear,” says enthusiast Robert Forrest, who says the method gives hunters the opportunity “to make a close clean ethical harvest or the ability to leave the bear to grow.”
But one person’s “ethical harvest” is another’s easy kill.
Opponents of hounding say it’s the lazy man’s version of hunting and not representative of a fair chase. Bryant says bans on hounding force hunters “to get out of their trucks and look around.”
“The thought that the dog does all the work for the lazy hunter is a complete misrepresentation of what actually happens,” Forrest says, noting hunters hike for miles at a time in search of their prey.
Hunting guides complain their businesses will suffer if a ban on hounding is enacted — projected at $20,000 to $50,000 per individual outfitter annually or $4,000 to $6,000 per hunt, according to NDOW.
A ban would also cut into “hunter success,” according to guides who oppose the ban.
“That’s a good thing,” says Bryant. “There aren’t too many bears. There are too many people.”
California enacted a ban on hounding in 2013 and the number of bears killed decreased from 1,962 in 2012 to 1,002 the first year of the ban.
Then-state Sen. Ted Lieu, now a U.S. Congressman, sponsored the measure.
“It caused harm to the dogs, sometimes the dogs would get in fights and get killed. Sometimes they would get injured. It was inhumane to bears and it was unsporting,” Lieu said at the time.
Dogs are sometimes starved in an effort to increase their prey drive, opponents say. Those injured or perceived as ‘underperformers’ are sometimes abandoned or turned over to shelters.
“Right after the California ban went into effect the hunters had to actually work and hunt so they didn’t get their bears,” says Bryant. “They learned how to engage in more of a fair chase than shooting them out of trees because they can’t fly away.”
Bears consume most of their food in the summer and fall, in anticipation of hibernation. The eating phase coincides with hunting season. Critics contend the energy expended by bears trying to evade dogs makes them vulnerable to starvation, especially in years when food sources are lacking.
“There are so few bears in Nevada. We’re still in complete shock they allowed the hunt to go into effect,” says Bryant of BEAR League.
Bear hunting in Nevada is limited to 20 kills a year, but the state’s hunters generally don’t reach the quota. “If there were plenty in Nevada, they would easily get 20 bears,” Bryant says. “That’s a no-brainer.”
“Hunters pay for the lands, not hikers or bikers,” says Forrest.
Nevada may be on track to join Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico in banning wildlife killing contests. Opponents contend the contests, which award prizes for killing the most animals — usually coyotes, are barbaric.
Supporters contend the contests help control populations and help ward off attacks on farm animals, ranch livestock, and pets.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our agency or our wildlife to be known as the only state that allows it,” Wildlife Commission member David McNinch told the Current in February.
McNinch says he’s heard “an increasing sense of urgency” recently from people who want to end the killing contests.
Last month, the Clark County Commission, arguably the most powerful body in the state, condemned the contests.
The Commission may direct NDOW to draft regulatory language to be considered in the future. Previous efforts to end the contests have failed.