SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Gary Ramey and his adult daughter traveled 2,500 miles to hunt California bears with hounds last month, eager to take part in what he calls a time-honored tradition.
It's one that won't be legal after Jan. 1, when the nation's most populous state outlaws the use of dogs to hunt bobcats and bears.
"When you think about it, hunting with dogs is probably the oldest hunting in history. I'm sorry to see it end," said Ramey of Gainesville, Ga.
Other supporters reported an increase in interest in the final months of the practice that critics contend is cruel and unsportsmanlike.
"This may be the last opportunity for them to use hounds to go bear hunting," said Josh Brones, president of California Houndsmen for Conservation, which opposed the new law.
Houndsmen use dogs to track a bear and chase it up a tree, where hunters can get a good shot at the stationary target. However, for many houndsmen and their dogs, the thrill is in the chase, and they release the bear unharmed.
Democratic state Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance, whose bill, SB1221, banned the practice, equated killing a bear in a tree to shooting a bear in a zoo. The animals can be chased to exhaustion, packs of dogs can tear apart bobcats, and bears can injure or kill the hounds that pursue them.
Seventeen states still permit the use of hounds to hunt bears, while 15 ban the practice. The other 18 do not allow bear hunting at all, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which pushed for California's law.
California and other states allow the use of hounds to hunt other animals, ranging from birds to feral pigs. A judge in Wisconsin has temporarily banned using dogs to hunt wolves there before he issues a permanent ruling next year, while Nevada game officials are considering a petition to ban hunting bears with hounds.
California's bear season was declared closed on Tuesday, 2 1/2 weeks early, after hunters reached their limit of 1,700 bears. Fewer than half were tracked with dogs, according to preliminary figures, about the same as most years. California has an estimated 70,000 bobcats and issued about 4,500 permits to hunt bobcats last year. About 11 percent of the bobcats were killed with the use of dogs.
State wildlife officials estimate California's black bear population is about 26,000, an increase from about 10,000 in the 1980s, though some critics question the accuracy of that figure. Brones believes lawmakers will rethink the ban if there is a surge in troublesome bears as the population increases.
Lieu and Jennifer Fearing, the Humane Society's California state director, said they aren't surprised by the late surge in interest in the practice.
"We're just relieved and heartened that this is the last bear season where this cruel and unethical practice can be utilized," Fearing said.
Ramey bid on his trip at a charity auction 18 months ago, before the hounding ban was enacted, because "it just sounded intriguing." He had never before seen a bear outside a zoo.
Holly Heyser, who teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento, and blogs about hunting, signed up two weeks ago to experience a hunt while she could. She said there is a negative stereotype even among other hunters of lazy people who let their dogs do the work for them.
She and Ramey said their hunts upended those stereotypes as they followed the baying dogs.
"It was up and down ravines, cliffs, you name it to get there," said Ramey. "It was physically exhausting."
He and his daughter, Grace, 20, each killed a bear, but only after sparing three others. It seemed unsporting to shoot a bear that was cornered in a culvert, he said, and they didn't feel right about shooting a mother and young bear treed together.
Ramey and Heyser said using hounds to track bears let them be more selective about what to shoot and seemed more sporting than luring a bear with bait, which also is banned in California. Both argued that shooting treed bears let them make clean kills, and in separate interviews each equated it to using dogs to flush pheasants.
"The difference is no one feels sorry for pheasants," Heyser said. "They're really pretty, but they're chickens."