SALT LAKE CITY — After some spirited discussion, Utah Wildlife Board members approved changes to the state’s bear pursuit licenses that were proposed late last year over concerns over-pursuit ethics.
During its meeting Tuesday, the board also approved a proposal that will add 122 new hunting permits for the hunting season beginning this spring. The largest increases in permits in the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' Beaver, Book Cliffs. Chalk Creek and Plateau Boulder regions, in southern, central and eastern Utah. Those locations have reported a decrease in deer populations, which is believed to be related to bears, according to DWR officials.
The board also agreed to look into its bear situation on a yearly cycle instead of a three-year cycle and to implement a restricted pursuit season during the spring for non-resident pursuers in DWR's La Sal, San Juan and Book Cliffs units. Only two non-resident permits will be approved during the season.
Changes to bear pursuits and hunting
Pursuit permits allow a handler to have their dogs chase bears as a practice and are different than harvesting permits. The changes approved include a statewide 16-dog limit at one time during all non-summer bear and mountain lion seasons while maintaining an eight-dog limit during the summer. There were previously no dog limits except for eight dogs during the summer.
The board also approved a motion that someone seeking a pursuit permit must complete an online course focused on bear pursuit ethics before they can purchase that permit either online or through a vendor. Those applying for a harvesting permit already had to take a course, but ethics will now be included in that course.
The board also approved an amendment to clarify an existing rule that "a person may not pursue a single bear or mountain lion in repeated pursuits, where it could render the animal physically unable to escape." A hound owner must now also make "reasonable efforts" to call off their dogs if they have cornered a bear or mountain lion and held it at bay, according to DWR officials.
The changes were proposed in November as wildlife officials became concerned about reported problems with ethical behavior. DWR game mammals coordinator Darren DeBloois said those concerns centered around people pursuing animals to or past exhaustion.
During his presentation Tuesday, DeBloois recommended that the board implement a restricted pursuit season for three bear regions in central and southern Utah, put a cap at 16 dogs for the non-summer season, and clarify ethics rules to insure bears and lions weren’t being over-exhausted. He also proposed that the board increase spot and stalk harvest permits in areas where mule deer populations were declining, specifically in two southeastern Utah spots.
“We saw about a third of the neonatal — newborn — predation due to bears. Bears are keying in on those fawns when they hit the ground,” DeBloois said, explaining data from the Book Cliffs region between Vernal and Moab. “We don’t have that data for (Boulder/Kaiparowits region). We are collaring animals down there, but we felt like addressing bear numbers down there could help.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the sixth and final public meeting about the proposal over the past few weeks. Some were opposed the changes because the board passed a three-year plan with bears in 2018, while others opposed the restricted pursuit plan.
“The thing I have a problem with is, in the past we’ve always been told there has been zero complaints with houndsmen (during) the spring season,” said Tyler Farr, who identified himself as a member of the Utah Houndsmen Association. Farr said that was the understanding following a 2018 meeting, but that changed last spring when he ran into a conservation officer while hunting. He said that the officer told him houndsmen would face “a bunch of changes” following a poaching incident.
“My feeling is all these changes that restrict houndsmen came from that one bad group of guys,” Farr added.
While most comments were against limiting pursuits, some told the board they didn’t think the changes went far enough to protect bears. Sundays Hunt, Utah State director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization supported DWR’s efforts to promote pursuit ethics but asked the board to consider cutting the dog limit number in half and not increasing any bear-baiting or spot-and-stalk permits.
“We believe a limit of 16 hounds is still exceedingly high and does not sufficiently increase fair chase for these iconic native animals,” she said. “In order to ensure all hounds remain under the control of their handlers, we believe no more than eight hounds should be permitted for all black bears and cougar (hunting) seasons, aligning with the current limit of eight hounds during restricted summer pursuits.”
Board member Wade Heaton said he understood the frustration that changes were being implemented after already passing a three-year plan on bears. However, he argued a changing climate and new data in the state forced a need to alter the plan sooner than at the end of the current plan.
“We have a clearer picture of where our deer are now. We have better data and science from our collar studies reflecting what lions, and even bears are doing specifically to our deer herds,” Heaton said during the meeting. “I’d hate to see us kick this down the road. I’d hate to see us be slow to react on this.”
Board members also mulled over a proposal that would have added 288 new bear hunting permits statewide; however, the measure was defeated with a 4-3 vote. A second proposal was then suggested that would add 122 new permits and bring the total amount to nearly 1,100.
Other passed measures
The board also voted to accept two other proposals brought up during the meeting.
DWR officials requested to extend the state’s plan for wolves for an additional 10 years, which would only take effect once wolves are taken off the endangered species list statewide. The proposal didn’t adjust much of the current plan, which was first passed in 2005.
That plan and a plan to make it easier for brine shrimp companies to transfer their certificate of registration for harvesting passed without much of a fuss Tuesday.