Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 3:44 p.m.
Nevada’s 2-year-old bear hunt would come to an end under a bill heard Wednesday at the Legislature.
The bill would explicitly prohibit the state’s Board of Wildlife Commissioners from authorizing the hunting of black bears and would classify the black bear as a “protected mammal.”
The Nevada Department of Wildlife officials gave the green light for the state’s first bear hunt in the summer of 2011, and it was controversial from the start. The announcement drew protesters, a candlelight vigil and a march on the governor’s mansion, sparking one wildlife official to say “it was by far the most controversial decision” the department has made in many years.
The bear hunt ban bill drew support from the Native American community, who advanced religious arguments in favor of the measure.
“This bear dance is sacred to us, and it still goes on to this very day,” said Buck Sampson, a spiritual adviser and member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “We still honor the bear. He’s our relative. We call him our uncle, our brother, our grandfather.”
The bill also drew impassioned support from numerous members of No Bear Hunt Nevada and other members of the public who said the science is not settled as to whether the bear population is stable enough to sustain a hunt and thus preferred nonlethal bear management solutions.
Many people who testified said they have been repeatedly stymied and ignored when they have shown polls supporting an end to the bear hunt and have otherwise appealed to the state’s wildlife commission, which Gov. Brian Sandoval appoints.
Opponents are concerned that giving the black bear protected status would preclude Nevadans from killing any problem animals.
Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said a bear killed one of his horses, and he would not have any recourse to neutralize the problem animal.
Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, also questioned why it would be wise to carve out a specific exemption in state law for banning the hunt of a specific animal.
“This is a can of worms I am about to open: Why would I as a legislator want to put one animal in a statute, tying the arms of regulators who are charged with the duty (to manage wildlife)?” Ford said.
Christine Schwamberger of Nevada Political Action said the specific exemption ia needed because the wildlife commission and wildlife department have not been responsive.
“What this Legislature gives, it can take away,” she said.
Hunters and opponents of the bill, however, said that the exemption opens the way for other specific bans.
“Will they stop at bear hunting?” said Robert Gaudet, president of Nevada Wildlife Federation, Inc. “I don’t think so.”
Michael Reese, Southern Nevada Coalition for Wildlife president, said the fees paid by hunters support habitat and other measures that grow game animal populations so that there can be a hunt.
Nevada’s bear population has risen steadily since the the 1980s, according to the state’s wildlife department. Prior to that date, Nevada had a negligible population of bears.
“Nevada has no bear, except for an occasional one that strays in along the Sierras adjacent to Lake Tahoe in California,” Glen Griffith, the Nevada wildlife department director, said in 1979.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife documented 359 bear mortalities in Nevada since 1997 and estimates the current population to be between 400 and 700 bears.
Among those documented bear deaths, 25 came at the hands of successful hunters during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The wildlife officials estimate the hunts brought in more than $50,000 to the state.
In two years, about 2,900 people applied for a bear hunt “tag,” but the wildlife department issues only 45 permits per year.
Hunters killed 1,163 bears in California counties bordering Nevada hunting counties between 2005 and 2010, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
The annual bear hunting season runs from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31.