SAN JOSE, Calif. — For a thousand years, dogs and hunting have gone together like bows and arrows, guns and bullets, predators and prey.
In medieval Europe, people tracked boars and stags with packs of hounds. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned hunting dogs.
But simply because something is an old tradition doesn’t mean it should continue, say animal-rights groups, whose efforts to ban the use of dogs to hunt bears and bobcats is gaining momentum in the California Legislature.
The issue, this year’s most heated environmental battle in Sacramento, is drawing intense passions. Critics say hunters with packs of yapping dogs fitted with radio collars chase exhausted wild animals for miles, cornering them in branches and shooting them point blank.
“It’s not only unethical and inhumane, it’s unnecessary,” said Jennifer Fearing, California director of the Humane Society of the United States. “We don’t do it for public safety or population management. We do it for recreation. It’s out of step with California’s values.”
But hunters say their opponents are barking up the wrong tree.
They see the bill, SB 1221, by state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, as the latest assault by mostly urban environmentalists and voters against mostly rural hunters.
“First they banned mountain lion hunting, then trapping,” said Dan Tichenor, a retired Castro Valley engineer who hunts bears with his six Plott hounds, a breed with supremely sensitive sniffing abilities that looks a bit like a bloodhound, without the loose skin.
“Now they’re going after bear and bobcat hunting with dogs,” he said. “I think the plan is to ban it species by species, state by state. Their goal is to eventually ban all hunting.”
At a key hearing in April, 600 hunters and 200 animal-rights supporters turned out at the state Capitol.
Tichenor, who worked on nuclear weapons components and combustion research for 33 years at Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, began hunting with dogs as a 7-year-old in rural Missouri, pursuing squirrels and raccoons with his father.
If bear hunting is going to be legal in California, he said, using dogs is the most compassionate way to do it because the animals die immediately with a direct shot.
“Climbing trees is a natural behavior for a bear,” he said. “Yes, you are shooting a bear at close range. But it is humane. When most animals in the wild die, they do not die that quickly.”
California wouldn’t be the first state to ban the use of dogs for hunting bears. Fourteen states, including Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana, now ban the practice. Thirteen states ban using dogs to hunt bobcats.
“I want California to be as humane as Montana was in 1921 when that pro-hunting state banned the use of dogs for bear hunting,” Lieu said.
Lieu is not a hunter. He was a captain in the Air Force, however, and won two marksmanship awards for handgun shooting.
According to state Department of Fish and Game estimates, 23,000-39,000 bears roam California. The season for hunting them runs from September to December, with a limit of one per hunter per year. Most bear hunting occurs near Redding and Red Bluff and in the Sierra Nevada.
Lieu said he has received a lot of hate mail from hunters.
“Some of them say because I’m not a hunter I shouldn’t do anything about hunting bills,” he said. “It’s like saying because I’m not a firefighter, I shouldn’t be able to carry legislation about firefighting or because I’m not a doctor, I can’t take on medical issues. That’s not how it works.”
Lieu’s bill passed the state Senate 22-15 in late May. It now heads to the Assembly, where passage in the Democratic-controlled chamber is expected.
Whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it if it reaches his desk is unknown.
Twice before, in 1993 and 2003, California lawmakers rejected efforts to ban hound hunting. But this year, the issue gained new attention after Dan Richards, president of the state Fish and Game Commission, was photographed holding a dead mountain lion he chased with dogs and shot in Idaho, eliciting cries of outrage in California.
“I was surprised to learn we allowed this practice,” said Lieu, who introduced his bill in March.
“It came to light because of Dan Richards. It’s not why I’m doing the bill, but it’s how I first heard about it.”
During legislative hearings, supporters of Lieu’s legislation, which include the Sierra Club and the ASPCA, have presented examples of dogs being mistreated, abandoned and running roughshod over private land.
But Tichenor and other opponents of the bill, including the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, say that hound hunters are like all dog lovers and that most take good care of their animals.
“People say my dogs are vicious,” Tichenor said. “But the worst you’ll get from them is a lick in the face.”
© 2012 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)