Bear hunting in California: the end of an era
The controversial practice of hunting bears with dogs is about to be banned in the US state. Some veterans on one of their final expeditions share the thrill of the chase
IMAGE UNAVAILABLE - PICTURE OF BEAR IN FOREST.
A black bear prowls the redwood forest. Photograph: Getty Images/National Geographic.
The sun is up, first rays streaming through the canopy, and the two hunters pause to inspect tracks – big, dusty imprints with five toes – on the forest floor. They move on, boots crunching twigs as they climb a ridge. "What you reckon the chances we'll get one?" asks Josh Brones, a muscular 37-year-old, adjusting his backpack. Dan Tichenor, 65, tall and rangy, scans the northern California landscape. "More than even."
We troop on, single file, in silence. The only sound apart from our footsteps is the panting of Cajun, a hound straining at Tichenor's lead. Up ahead, sniffing bushes and trees for clues, is another hound, Osage, Cajun's father, a grey-muzzled veteran. "He's beginning to show his age but compensates with experience," says Tichenor. An hour later, scaling the ridge, the hunters spot more tracks, fresher than the first. They quicken their pace. Somewhere ahead is an American black bear, Ursus americanus.
Osage scampers down a slope and vanishes from view. A few minutes later he begins to bark. Tichenor releases Cajun who takes off like a rocket. The hunters stop and listen to the barking as it wafts up from the valley floor. The dogs appear to be moving west towards Cotton Wood Creek. Tichenor closes his eyes and tilts his head to interpret the barks. He does not doubt his hounds are pursuing a bear. An adjustment in tone and frequency can signal the bear has stopped and the dogs are confronting him, or that it has climbed a tree. "If he's up a tree there'll be a cadence to the barking." Tichenor listens again. "They've stopped moving. Let's go down and see what's happening."
The hunters slide with sure feet down a rocky gorge and half an hour later climb the other side, pushing through bramble. Oaks, pines and firs soar overhead. There is a rustling sound behind us and a black shape races down a tree: a young bear, a yearling. It waited for the canine and human interlopers to pass before descending and sprinting away, a blur of fur.
The hunters leave him. The dogs are ahead, barking in a frenzy, for they have "treed" a different bear. It clings halfway up a 150ft fir tree, snout and eyes visible amid branches, and peers down at the dogs leaping at the base. The hunters unshoulder their packs. "Got you!"
It is the moment they live for. The moment, as they see it, when a millennia-old alliance, that of man and dog, is renewed. "It's reliving a part of our heritage; continuing an ancient tradition," says Tichenor in a Missouri drawl. "It's the ultimate test of a hound-hunter," says Brones, the younger man, a California native. "This is when you prove yourself, show that your dogs are tough and skilled enough to do this."
Some 1,700 black bears out of a population estimated between 23,000 to 39,000 can be legally "harvested" in California each year. (Hunters have "taken" – ie killed – 1,300 bears this season so far, so another 400 remain fair game.) Almost half are done so with the help of hounds. Hunters are required by law to eat the meat. But this recent scene in the woods of Yola Bolly, 160 miles north of Sacramento, will be one of California's last. These hunters who trace their lineage back to George Washington, Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt are now the hunted. Last month Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill, banning the hunting of bears and bobcats with hounds. It takes effect on 1 January 2013.
A powerful coalition of animal rights activists and Democrats, led by senator Ted Lieu,...