Inside the 2019 Nevada bear hunt – a fierce conflict of values

by Brian Bahouth

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 2019 Bob Tregilus

Nevada is one of 32 states to allow an individual to legally kill a bear. Nevada’s bear harvest is small in number when compared to other states like California with a limit of 1,700. The rancor over Nevada’s bear hunt is among the nation’s loudest and most bitter. It’s an ongoing fight replete with lawsuits, restraining orders and death threats. Perhaps more than any other issue, the brawling over Nevada’s bear hunt is a reflection of the changing nature of a state with one of the nation’s lowest percentages of rural residents and fastest growing urban populations.

Nevada’s 9th annual bear hunt ran from September 15 to December 1, 2019. Forty-five in-state and five out-of-state hunters plied designated tracts for bears between the dates or until 20 animals were taken. According to the Nevada Division of Wildlife, hunters took 17 bears in 2019 out of an overall state population estimated to be around 650.

The laws governing the hunting of bears vary widely by state and are largely parsed by method of hunting. Later in this report, a Nevada bear hunting guide will offer a specific description of a Nevada bear hunt, but in a broad sense, there are two legal ways to hunt a bear in Nevada. The first is known as Spot and Stalk, which is self-explanatory. A hunter searches the forest for a harvestable bear and when they find one, they use one of many legal weapons to end the bear’s life as quickly and ethically as possible.

The second method employs specially trained dogs. Nevada is one of 14 states to allow the practice. There is little furor over the use of dogs to hunt birds. The use of bird dogs is legal in every state. Bird hunters and waterfowl hunting associations sometimes consider themselves conservation groups and often work in consort with environmental and species advocacy organizations. But when it comes to hunting bears, especially with dogs, the divisions of opinions are deep and wide.

Below is a map of the 2019 Nevada bear hunt. Each push pin represents a bear taken this hunting season. Click on the pins for bear details.

The Nevada Wildlife Values Report

Nevada approved its first regulated bear hunt in 2011. Strong differences of opinion about the taking of bears were evident from the beginning. After years of fighting, in 2018, the Wildlife Commission formed a bear committee of diverse bear hunting stakeholders to resolve differences. Kathryn Bricker is director of No Bear Hunt Nevada and was appointed to the committee.

“One of our goals was that we get rid of the confusion surrounding the reason for the bear hunt. There was a lot of misinformation. It included members of the Commission,” Bricker said. “The chairman of the Commission at the time the bear hunt was approved was saying one thing. Others were saying another, and so there was a lot of confusion surrounding that, and it was our goal to clarify why we are conducting a bear hunt in Nevada.

“The bear hunt serves no management purpose. It’s not used for population control. It’s not used to reduce human/bear conflict. The only reason for conducting the bear hunt in Nevada is to provide a recreational opportunity for hunters who would like to do a bear hunt.”

In a phone interview, Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) spokesperson Ashley Sanchez was clear that the agency does not use hunting to control the bear population. She said the primary reason for the hunt is for recreational opportunities. She added that since the bear hunt began in 2011, the state’s bear population has grown from roughly 400 to over 600 during that time and is, according to NDOW biologists, robust enough to endure the taking.

For Kathryn Bricker, Nevada’s bear hunt is a large-scale and barbaric act of bad governance, especially using dogs. She points to the results of the Nevada Wildlife Values Report as justification to end Nevada’s bear hunt.

“Historically with the hunt, in the 70 percentiles of the bears killed in the bear hunt have been taken using the method of hounding as it’s called. That practice has been outlawed as unnecessarily cruel in the majority of states that conduct bear hunts,” Bricker said.

In our analysis, 14 of the 32 states that allow bear hunting also permit the use of dogs. California banned the use of hounds in 1961.

“It’s definitely an example of managing the public trust for a very few against the will of the majority,” Bricker said.

Data from the 2018 Nevada Wildlife Values Report – graph – Nevada Capital News.

Bitter fighting and the need for an anonymous source

It is easy to draw an ugly portrait of a bear hunt using dogs: ruthless hunters casually follow vicious dogs fitted with GPS collars as they hound a powerless bear into a tree or its den and then shoot it with a high powered rifle. The image of the smiling hunter and their prey are sometimes posted to social media adding fuel to a roaring anti-bear hunt fire.

From the beginning, efforts to alter and or end Nevada’s bear hunt have persisted from formal petitions to the Wildlife Commission to legislation meant to end hunting bears with dogs. This always pointed debate has churned through the Legislature and countless Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners meetings and subcommittees since the hunt began in 2011. In 2019 there has been a breakdown in any meaningful communication between bear hunters and those who oppose it.

In two separate cases, NDOW officers are suing anti-bear hunt activists over harassment in the field and on social media. Bear rights activists have in response filed several lawsuits against wildlife officials and others. Not one of these cases has been resolved.

In sourcing this report, Nevada Capital News queried several Nevada bear hunters for their perspective. One hunter said he and his family’s lives have been threatened for hunting bears and would not comment. Another licensed Nevada hunting guide agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

A licensed guide describes a bear hunt

Prior to a bear hunt, similar to other hunts, scouting begins well in advance of the season. Skilled hunters characterize bears by their behavioral patterns revolving around food sources. Those food sources change throughout the year.

“We’ll start hiking in the canyons and especially around water sources to really to get an idea of where the bear movement is starting that particular year, as well as paying attention to the changes in food sources primarily hard-masked here in Nevada, which is pine nuts and pinyon trees. There’s a number of other seasonal crops that bears will target like berries and grasses. They’re very opportunistic. A biologist once told me, if it’s edible, a bear will eat it. That can include even juniper berries, although that’s pretty rare in my experience. So we’ll start well before the season scouting to try and get an idea of where the bears are, where they’re moving as well as where we expect the food sources will be when the season starts.”

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 2019 Bob Tregilus

Before hunters begin active pursuit, they gather intelligence and work to gain a clearer picture of the bear. The goal is to take an older male to minimize impact on the population.

“We’ll look for tracks, and we can distinguish a number of things about an individual bear just based on the track and what the track tells us. So there’s a couple different measurements that we’ll key in on. The size of the track that distinguish bear from being perhaps a young bear or a juvenile bear or even in many cases, we can with a high degree of certainty, determine the gender of the bear. We target old or older, mature males, because it has the least biological impact or ecological impact on the bear population to harvest a mature male bear.”

Nevada regulations stipulate that a hunter cannot kill a bear cub or a sow (female bear) with cubs.

“Before we harvest a bear, we go out of our way to make sure that it is, number one, not a sow. We’re looking at harvesting only males. We’re really trying to harvest mature males and a mature boar is a bear that has lived four years or more. So starting out, if we find a bear track, we can make a good determination just based on the size of the track.”

Specially trained hounds are another way hunters locate bears.

“Hounds, they can detect bear scent on the wind. And what we call rigging is where a hound will be placed in a position where it can detect their scent on the wind as we’re working through the country. They will alert or strike, which is a very loud distinct bark when they detect that bear scent. At that point, we start working out away from where we’re stopped trying to locate the track to give us as good of an idea as we can as to the type of bear that the dogs are likely alerting on or striking.”

Before releasing the dogs, hunters work to more accurately characterize the bear, which can be tricky.

“Let’s say that we do find the track. It’s seven and a half inches long, so it’s kind of on the cusp of being (a boar), I’m referring to the rear track at this point. It’s probably a boar, could be a very large sow, but it’s probably a boar, so we’ll evaluate it, get an idea of where it’s heading and if we’re comfortable with the direction it’s heading. Then we’ll put dogs on the ground to start to trail the bear.

“At that point, depending on how fresh the track is, the hounds will follow the scent of the animal and ultimately pursue it to a point where the animal is jumped. What that means is, they’re no longer trailing just the remaining or lingering sent of the animal. They’re now trailing an animal that’s up and moving away from the dogs. It is just so highly variable at which point in the hunt that event occurs. Bears move tremendous distances, even on a 24 hour period. Generally, the tracks we’re tracking are going to be 12 hours or less. Most of the time, they’re going to be 4 to 6 hours or less.”

According to our guide, bear hunters in Nevada typically deploy 3 to 7 dogs. He said experienced hound hunters know the rhythms of each particular dog’s barking and gauge the closeness of the bear based on the tone of the dogs.

“At any point if we’re uncomfortable with what’s going on, we can call the dogs back. So we go out of our way to maintain what we refer to as a good handle on our dogs, which really is just obedience training. Our dogs are really under voice control most of the time. We also employ the training collars that can give audible, what we call a tone, so we can tone the dogs. We’ve trained the dogs, worked with them all off season, so that when that tone is deployed, they know to return to us and to stop the tracking. So we’re going out of our way to maintain control over the situation because there’s a variety of things that can happen when you release dogs in a hunt. The safety of our dogs is paramount, and if we’re at any point uncomfortable with how the hunt is progressing, we’ll have the dogs returned to us.”

Once the bear is jumped, dogs and hunters are in active pursuit. The chase can take several forms.

“Sometimes we have the luxury of there being a dirt road that we can maintain closeness to the dogs. Sometimes it’s a trail and just as often as not, it is as you described bushwhacking. We are on foot beating through the country working through whatever the canyon or the mountain sides hold. Where bears live is generally typified by a very dense cover, very thick vegetation. And I’ll tell you right now, this is one of the most physically demanding pursuits that you can ever go on in the hunting realm.”

The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) dog collars is particularly grating to anti-bear hunt activists who assert such a bear hunt does not meet the definition of fair pursuit.

For the hunting guide, GPS collars provide important data that prevents the harassment of non-bear wildlife and helps ensure the safety of the dogs. The guide emphasized that they cannot monitor dog location on a computer or tablet in the field. In order to get GPS data from the dogs, handlers must have line of sight geometry.

“The GPS positioning from the collars back to our receivers is all done via telemetry, which is radio technology. The position is determined by GPS satellites, but it’s only relayed back to us as the handlers via telemetry, which really is limited to line of sight. And if you spend any time outdoors in Nevada, it doesn’t take any time to get in a position where you’re out of sight. Our terrain is so rugged, so cut up, so full of canyons and folds and peaks that really once the dogs are out of line of sight, we no longer have that communication from the GPS positioning. So the best thing we can do is try and stay within earshot of the dogs to keep tabs on how the race is going.”

The kill

Once the dogs corner the bear in a tree or elsewhere, they further evaluate the animal before taking the shot. The guide said that at no point do the dogs attack or physically harm the bear.

“We can get to the tree and evaluate the animal under very close distances, again, to make sure it’s an animal that ecologically and from a conservation goal is an appropriate animal to harvest. So that’s the benefit. The shot is very close. It’s not a challenging shot, but we can with a greater certainty, make sure that it’s a quick, humane shot because of how close it is. Before that ever happens, we can evaluate, determine approximate age, size and gender, again to make sure it’s an informed decision at that point.”

Images of hunters posing next to their dead prey are emotional gasoline for those opposed to hunting bears. The hunting guide said there is a lot more to the story.

“There’s so much more to that. I’m glad you brought up the pictures. People gravitate and latch on and build perceptions based on those images, and those images are potent. And to be fair, I can understand how people can come to some of these conclusions when their entire interaction with the event is that one photo. Generally it’s an animal that’s no longer living. It’s a dead, harvested bear. And let’s not mince words, the animal has died, it’s been killed at the hands of the hunter, and here it is on the ground. Generally the hunter is behind it. Most of the time wearing a smile and holding a weapon.

“That sort of image conjures up all types of emotions, and if you’ve been removed from the event that transpired getting to that point, it could be really challenging to know why on earth would anyone smile over a dead animal?”

The guide recalled taking his first mule deer when 13 years old and the lesson of smiling too broadly.

“I’m sitting behind the deer holding the deer. I have a grin ear-to-ear. A family member commented you’re smiling a bit too large for having killed such a beautiful animal. That kind of wounded me receiving that comment from a family member. I reflected on this over the last 22 years.

“What I’ve kind of come to is, at the point where we’re getting the camera out to memorialize the event, we’ve gone through any number of emotions, oftentimes tears, oftentimes travail and uncertainty about the outcome, concerned that it was as quick and humane as possible.

“I do not associate and have not associated with anyone that relishes in the killing of a wild animal. It just does not factor into the equation. Again, I would not associate with anyone that took great joy in just the act of killing. The act of killing is a necessity of the hunt. But it is not the pivotal moment. It is not the climax of the moment.

“The reason we’re smiling most of the time is that we have set ourselves to achieve something. We’ve put in the effort and the hardships and the struggle to be successful. And by the time the cameras come out, usually the emotion that remains is happiness and gratitude for our success. You don’t see the concern. You don’t see the tears. You don’t see the moments of reflection, because we don’t take the cameras out at that time. I just helped two first time hunters with mule deer hunts this year and I can confirm and guarantee you that both of those hunters wept after the shot.”

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 2019 Bob Tregilus

The guide said that he and his clients expressly show gratitude and thankfulness following a successful hunt. In Nevada, a hunter is not required to keep the bear meat, but the guide was emphatic in saying that all of his clients and the large majority of bear hunters keep and eat the meat. According to NDOW data, every bear hunter who got a bear in 2019 included “meat” in the “parts saved” section of the bear mortality report.

“When we get to the animal, we say our words of thanks. We thank the animal. We thank each other for the opportunity to share this experience. We reflect on all the effort and preparation that went into it. And then by that time when we take the photos, the emotion that has remained and lingers is that sense of gratitude, that sense of happiness and having been successful at looking forward to a future full of meals shared together of wild game.

“This is free range, organic, no antibiotics, very lean. It is the healthiest wild source protein we can have. We’re going to share that with our friends and our families. We’re going to sustain ourselves and our families with that meat. So at that point, that’s why we’re smiling. It is so much more than just this sort of colonialist mentality that we’re just out to conquer and be conquerors and exploit the wild for our own egos. That, in my opinion is a straw man argument and it’s one that’s made all the time.”

Public relations challenges

Nevada is one of the nation’s most urbanized states, which means Nevada has one of the lowest percentages of rural residents of any state. There are numerous studies that document an urban/rural divide regarding attitudes about hunting.

In general, rural residents have greater interest in fishing and hunting when compared to urban residents. A recent study by researchers at Oklahoma State University noted that the only statistically significant difference between urban and rural attitudes toward a variety of outdoor activities was hunting. The hunting guide believes urbanization has much to do with perceptions about hunting in Nevada.

“What accompanies urbanization is a distancing, a separation or removal for most people from what we would say is the natural world, and so the perception of nature, the perception of wild animals is really filtered through media anymore, filtered primarily through social media. So that’s how these public perception issues can start.”

The hunting guide said his occupation has many distinct public relations challenges, especially bear hunting with dogs. The guide said that when he is able to speak one-on-one with a person who knows little about the particulars of hunting, he has been able to dispel some of the more inflammatory presumptions about bear hunters and their intent.

“I’ve found that when you are afforded the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with people and explain it from my perspective, I’ve had just tremendous success with people saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’

“But you’re absolutely right, bear hunting and to be fair hunting in general has a public relations or public perception challenge. It’s exacerbated now that we’re in this age of social media where people can instantly see a picture or short section of video, without any context, come to their own conclusions or perhaps guided to conclusions by the people who are posting or reposting this. It transcends this sort of misperception or mischaracterization of what’s going on.”

Data from the 2018 Nevada Wildlife Values Report – graph – Nevada Capital News.

The future

It is likely anti-bear hunting activists will continue to press legislators and the Board of Wildlife Commissioners to end Nevada’s bear hunt. Kathryn Bricker said No Bear Hunt Nevada and others have never had a bear hunt victory with the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners. Most recently, in 2018, Commissioners expanded the area of the hunt to the objections of anti-bear hunting activists. For Bricker, the only way the bear hunt will end is if essential changes are made to the member composition of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners.

“It’s a poster child for what is called Regulatory Capture where the regulated and the those who are doing the regulation are one in the same,” Bricker said. “Of the nine-member panel, seven of those nine applied for hunting tags in 2018, so that’s basically 78 percent of the current panel when the bear hunt, after not being held for ninety years traditionally in Nevada, was approved. At that time, of nine seats, seven were occupied by licensed hunters. The Nevada Wildlife Commission needs to be reconfigured for a fair representation of the current demographic and values and attitudes of the public toward wildlife.”

Changing the makeup of the Board of Wildlife Commissioners would require legislative action, which means a bill would have to successfully make its way through a future session of the Nevada State Legislature, a protracted and difficult goal to accomplish. Kathryn Bricker said she feels  disenfranchised and that the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners and NDOW are disregarding the will of Nevada citizens.

“I absolutely feel disenfranchised,” Bricker said. “I think the current agency and commission are not representative of the general public in terms of the bear hunt, both its methods and the fact that it’s conducted at all. It’s not a necessary hunt. And it serves so few people to think that it is good policy for them setting policy for wildlife management to ignore this and create this level of conflict between the public and at the agency and the commission is bad governance.”

Nevada Division of Wildlife spokesperson Ashley Sanchez said, for the agency, many factors must be considered when weighing bear hunting decisions. Sanchez said NDOW and the Board of Wildlife Commissioners are listening to everyone.

“We want people to be getting involved and giving us their opinions. It’s really important that when people have an issue with something that they show up to the public meetings. It starts with the county advisory boards on the local level and then come to our Commission meetings and our commissioners do take in everything. They have a lot of information that comes at them and they are taking in all of that information.”

Sanchez said she understands how people can feel disenfranchised if decisions don’t go their way, but she reiterated that the Board and agency are listening.

“There is a small population of people that feel that they are not heard, but their voices are heard. There’s a lot of people with a lot of different beliefs, so we’re doing our best to take in all the opinions and make decisions based on the expertise of our biologists. So we’re taking in public opinion. We’re taking in our biologists knowledge when making decisions. So there’s a lot that goes into it. And I know there is a small portion of people that do believe that we’re not listening to them, but we are.”

The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners is the ultimate authority regarding Nevada’s bear hunt. Nevada governors appoint members of the Board based on a selection process laid out in statute. Here are the steps and general requirements:

1.  A county advisory board to manage wildlife shall submit written nominations for appointments to the Commission upon the request of the Governor and may submit nominations at any other time.
2.  After consideration of the written nominations submitted by a county advisory board to manage wildlife and any additional candidates for appointment to the Commission, the Governor shall appoint to the Commission:
(a) One member who is actively engaged in and possesses experience and expertise in advocating issues relating to conservation;
(b) One member who is actively engaged in farming;
(c) One member who is actively engaged in ranching;
(d) One member who represents the interests of the general public; and
(e) Five members who during at least 3 of the 4 years immediately preceding their appointment held a resident license to fish or hunt, or both, in Nevada.

Biophillia

Biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson coined the word Biophillia in his 1984 book with the same title. Wilson defines the word as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Both bear hunters and anti-bear hunters find this connection with bears. The hunting guide said bear hunting promotes Biophillia.

“If I can leave you with one thing about why you might consider adopting at least a favorable position on hunting is that hunting in general promotes Biophilia. Biophilia is this term that was coined this century. The general idea is a love for the natural world and animals that inhabit it. When we hunt, we immerse ourselves in this habitat, this environment, this wilderness. We learn about the animals we’re pursuing and we learn about the animals that share that habitat with them. The whole experience is fundamental to our perception of ourselves and who we are as human beings. And I think truly, that’s probably where this argument really rests is what is the right and appropriate role of human beings in the natural world in 2019.

“It is a perception difference and it is a values difference. We have reconciled within our minds that we can deeply love and cherish wild animals in wild places, and at the same time, be a participant, an active participant in nature, and to kill an individual animal to feed and sustain ourselves and our families in the context of causing no ecological harm. So it’s a way for us to immerse ourselves and become not just an observer, but an active participant in the natural world around us.”

Kathryn Bricker lives in the Lake Tahoe Basin and said she has a close identification with bears by virtue of living with them.

“I think scientific studies even verify what you’re saying that there is a certain identification with certain species more than others that make people more concerned about their welfare. I think there is an element there. For most of us who formed No Bear Hunt Nevada, we met not knowing one another at the very first Commission meeting where we naively thought that they really did want to hear our point of view and would consider it.

“The majority of those people do live in close proximity to the bear. For example in Lake Tahoe, our homes are in the forest. And for the bears to get to the lake, they like to swim, they like to do things, they pass through our neighborhoods on their way. Even if they’re wild bears living naturally, we see them, and I personally have lived with bears for over 40 years successfully, and so when I read they were proposing a bear hunt, I was shocked. It was like they were telling me they were going to come to my neighborhood and start shooting my dog.

“I think most of us just do have a kinship with the bears for having lived with them as closely as we do in this area (the Lake Tahoe basin). Knowing their ways, knowing them as individuals, they have strong personalities. They’re really unique individuals. They hold a lot of value to us. And so yes, it does have a lot to do with our knowledge of the species through living closely with them.”