California’s New Era in Black Bear Conservation: A Science-Driven Approach with a Role for Hunters

Bear hunting has been an integral part of California’s history since the Golden State was founded in 1850 and for thousands of years prior to colonization. In 2021 and 2022, anti-hunting groups pushed aggressively for legislation and then a petition to the Fish & Game Commission that would have banned bear hunting in the state.

Thanks to concerted advocacy efforts by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) and many other conservation groups, we defeated these attempts to ban bear hunting. Our advocacy highlighted not only the cultural significance of the issue to the diverse voices who provided comment against the bear hunting ban, but also the indispensable role that hunting plays in effective wildlife management and population modeling for California’s black bears.

 A timeline of the issue: 

  • 1948 Black bears classified as a game mammal in California.  
  • 1980: Population estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 bears. Over time hunting regulations were made more restrictive, prohibiting trapping, killing of cubs or sows with cubs, and a reduction in the bag limit from two to one bear per license year. 
  • 1998: Black bear management plan published which estimated the CA black bear population between 17,000 and 23,000 bears. Notably, the plan indicated an increase in the bear population and documented an expansion of black bears along the Central Coast and Southern California. 
  • 2012: Hunting with dogs banned by the CA legislature and harvest rates dropped by nearly 50% the following year. 2012 was the last year the bear hunting quota was met. 
  • 2021: SB252 ‘The Bear Protection Act’ introduced to ban bear hunting only to be withdrawn one week later following fierce backlash from the hunting community including BHA’s California Chapter. 
  • 2022: A petition requesting a moratorium on bear hunting submitted to the CA Fish & Game Commission citing climate change, wildfire and overharvest of bears. The petitioner argued the bear population was as low as 10,000 bears compared to CDFW’s estimates of 20,000 to 30,000 bears.
    • BHA and 25 other conservation organizations submitted multiple letters to the Fish and Game Commission compiling all the best available science on black bears in California to refute the claims made in the petition.
    • BHA also mobilized grass roots engagement from thousands of individuals who signed a letter opposing the petition
  • CDFW presented findings to the Fish & Game Commission utilizing a new integrated population model that accounted for the decrease in harvest success following hounding ban. Fish & Game Commission rejected the 2022 petition based on the latest bear population estimate of around 35,000. 
  • 2023: BHA fundraised $8k for a black bear population study with UC Davis and Lassen National Park to assist with CDFW’s efforts to update the black bear management plan. (California BHA contributed $5k and California Bowmen Hunters contributed $3k). 
  • 2024/current: CDFW releases the updated California Black Bear Conservation Plan and estimates current bear population between 50,000 and 80,000 bears!  

The newly drafted California Black Bear Conservation Plan emerges in this context, marking a pivotal development in wildlife management. It underscores a science-based approach integrating cutting-edge population monitoring techniques with traditional conservation practices. BHA applauds these efforts, recognizing the vital role that hunters play in sustaining wildlife populations and their habitats. 

Science-Based Population Data 

Central to the plan is an innovative integrated population model that utilizes data from about 3,000 camera trap surveys alongside hunter-collected age data from tooth samples. This model represents a substantial improvement over previous methods, providing more accurate monitoring of bear populations across California. By adopting such robust scientific methodologies, the plan ensures that conservation efforts are grounded in reliable data, painting a clear picture of the state's black bear populations, which are shown to be healthy, abundant, and five to eight times larger than the petition originally claimed. 

Eric Hanson, chair of the California Chapter of BHA, commends this development: "This plan represents a significant step forward in black bear conservation, leveraging science-based data to inform our management decisions. As hunters, we have a vested interest in maintaining sustainable bear populations, and this plan empowers CDFW with the data needed to do so effectively." 

Notably, the draft plan estimates that under optimal conditions, hunters could kill 15.9 percent of bears each year without affecting the bear population. That would amount to almost 8,000 bears hunted each year in California using the low-end estimate of bear population.  

Yet hunters have a quota of 1,700 bears a year, a number that has not been met in more than a decade. According to the draft plan, hunters harvest fewer than three percent of bears in the state. The upshot is that even under trying conditions related to wildfires and drought, and with hunters pursuing bears under current regulations, the bear population in our state thrives. 


A thriving bear population can be too much of a good thing in certain areas and for some prey species. According to the plan, mule deer fawns born west of the Sierra crest are six times more likely to be killed by a black bear over any other cause and this high rate of predation is thought to limit deer abundance in the area. Bear predation is also a cause of increased fawn mortality in the Mendocino National Forest where bears displace mountain lions from 72% of their kills in a practice known as kleptoparasitism. 

In fact, even for bears themselves, according to the plan where there is overpopulation or low food quality it can lead to “animal welfare” issues and can negatively impact the greater population. It’s no wonder why conflict between humans and bears is growing, especially in places like Mammoth, Truckee, and Lake Tahoe. The draft plan notes that hunting bears is an effective way to deter this conflict. Yet it also says that public opposition to bear hunting constrains hunters’ ability to effect change in human-bear conflict.  

The Role of Hunters in Conservation 

Hunting is more than a traditional outdoor activity; it's a vital conservation tool. The plan acknowledges the substantial contributions of hunters to wildlife management through license fees and the Pittman–Robertson Act, which have historically funded conservation efforts not only for game species but for a broad range of wildlife. By providing essential data and participating in regulated hunting, hunters help maintain the balance of ecosystems while supporting the state's conservation goals. The 10-year average of 28,024 black bear tags per year generated $13.4 million in revenue for conservation, which increases to $27.2 million when the cost of a hunting license is included. 

Key Conservation Goals 

The draft plan outlines several goals crucial for the future of black bear conservation: 

  • Population Management: Ensuring that black bear populations remain abundant and genetically diverse through careful monitoring and adaptive management. 
  • Habitat Conservation: Prioritizing the conservation of bear habitats to support healthy populations. 
  • Human-Wildlife Coexistence: Reducing conflicts through public education and by managing human attractants, thus fostering a landscape where people and wildlife can coexist harmoniously. 

A Call to Action 

BHA calls on all stakeholders—hunters, conservationists, and the general public—to support the implementation of the Black Bear Conservation Plan. We encourage our community to participate in public commentary periods and to engage with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to help shape the future of black bear management in our state. While many western states are grappling with assaults on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, California has embraced the model (in this instance) and recognized the role that hunters play in the conservation of large carnivores – and their consumption. Together, we can ensure that California’s black bears thrive, supported by a management plan that respects the science of conservation, the heritage of hunting, and the necessity of sustainable coexistence. 

California BHA has been working hard to support science-based management of wildlife in our state and our North American traditions of hunting and fishing in a natural setting. Support our work by becoming a member or donating today.

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About Devin O'dea

Devin grew up abalone diving, spearfishing, and backpacking in CA before discovering a love of bowhunting and wing shooting. He worked as a marketing manager for a carbon division of Mitsubishi, but the allure of adventure and wild places led him to BHA

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