A bill heard Tuesday from a Thompson Falls lawmaker would allow hound hunting for black bears in Montana.
Rep. Paul Fielder, a Republican, brought House Bill 468 to the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks Committee. The bill would allow hound hunting for black bears during the spring season and grants the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission authority to determine where hound hunting would be allowed. The legislation would also establish a training season to chase black bears from the end of hunting season until July 31.
Currently, black bears may only be hunted via spot-and-stalk hunting in the state during spring and fall seasons.
“In Montana, a person may take game birds, hunt mountain lions and hunt bobcats with the aid of a dog or dogs,” Fielder told the committee. “This bill simply adds black bears to the list of animals that may be hunted with a dog.”
Fielder pointed to the state of Idaho, where hound hunting for black bears is allowed. In that state about 12% of black bears are harvested with hounds each year and the hunt has continued despite the presence of federally listed grizzly bears, he said.
The hunts are physically demanding, but when hounds tree a bear, it allows hunters a closer examination to decide whether to harvest it, Fielder said.
Ross Feenstra with the Montana Houndsmen Association testified that opening up hound hunting for black bears would provide outdoor recreation, bring additional revenue to the state and create more biological data on black bears. Hounds could also be used in cases of bears that get into conflicts with people.
“We’re a group that care and cherish the wildlife we are pursuing,” he said. “This bill gives us the opportunity to do what we love most.”
Several supporters testified that they were multi-generational houndsmen and wanted to see the craft passed down to future generations.
Other groups supporting the bill included the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and the Montana Trappers Association, both of which approved of the idea of providing a new hunting opportunity in the state.
Opponents to HB 468 raised several concerns, from the questions of fair chase to stress of hound hunting on bears and other wildlife to conflicts with grizzly bears to whether the Legislature should be setting the season into law.
Calling hound hunting unethical for black bears coming out of hibernation, Bonnie Rice with the Sierra Club testified that Montana already has long and liberal bear hunting seasons. Also allowing chasing of black bears into the summer would mean black bears would only have about a month of the year outside of hibernation when they were not being pursued.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks chief of staff Quentin Kujala, Montana’s estimated black bear population ranges from 10,000 to 17,000 with more than 1,400 taken by hunters each year. The department believes harvest could sustainably increase in some areas of the state with higher densities, he said.
Several opponents felt hound hunting in the spring raised serious concerns as elk and deer drop their young for the year because the dogs can run far and long, disturbing wildlife.
Chris Servheen, a longtime federal bear biologist, testified that chasing black bears has been banned in Montana since the 1920s and poses significant potential for conflict with grizzly bears. While black bears tend to climb trees, grizzly bears are more apt to fight the dogs with a high potential for injury and death to the dogs, bears and houndsmen.
Idaho’s hunting regulations include closures to hound hunting in areas with grizzly bears. With grizzly bears inhabiting much of western Montana, Servheen believed much of the western part of the state would be closed if Montana used a similar model.
Other groups opposing the bill included the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Audubon, Montana Sportsman’s Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States and Footloose Montana.
In closing on his bill, Fielder defended hound hunting as a long-held traditional activity and said that it could offer another management tool for bears as predators. He also reiterated flexibility written into the bill for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on where hound hunting will be and will not be allowed in a similar approach to Idaho.